Getting the boss to talk – worker activists initiate collective bargaining at Shenzhen factory

Determination, patience and considerable ingenuity were required by a group of workers at a sports equipment manufacturer in Shenzhen just to get their boss to the negotiating table. Getting the boss to honour his promises thereafter was even more difficult.

The workers at Jiasheng Sports Equipment had an extensive list of longstanding grievances and, in August 2009, they staged a strike demanding the payment of wages and benefits in arrears. The following year, a small group of workers at the factory sought to resolve their outstanding issues through face to face negotiations with management but came up against a brick wall. After the boss refused to talk, and after the local government and trade union declined to help, the workers approached the American buyer company K2 and asked for its support. K2 put pressure on the factory and negotiations eventually got underway in April 2011.

Management agreed to about 80 percent of the workers’ demands but during the subsequent trade union elections it became clear that the boss wanted to keep his own people in place, effectively side-lining the activists. One of the key activists, Liu Dechang was eventually persuaded to leave the factory, highlighting once again quite how difficult it is for employees to remain involved in workers’ rights once they have been identified as a “troublemaker” by management. Moreover, K2 reportedly later switched to another supplier after costs at Jiasheng increased.

Liu’s account of his experiences at the factory was published in the July edition of Collective Bargaining Systems Research (集体谈判制度研究) and is translated in full below.


My personal experiences of labour/management negotiations at the Jiasheng factory

In August 2009, I got a job as a general technician at Jiasheng Sports Equipment in Shenzhen, an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) supplying the US ski and sports goods company K2. The general manager was from Taiwan, and there were about 800 workers. All orders were shipped directly to customers in Europe and the United States.

In order to ensure growth in sales and boost earnings, we had to put in six days a week in the busy season. And in order to meet extremely tight production deadlines, we had to work 10 or 12 hour days, doing overtime on top of regular work hours. We were fined 30 yuan per hour if we took breaks without asking permission. At my workstation, there were potential safety risks; some parts of the equipment were missing, and ventilation in the workshop was inadequate. The air in some workshops reeked of irritants given off by chemicals. And because there was no adequate cooling or ventilation equipment, it was always really muggy inside the workshop.

Sometimes, when you were really tired and your attention wandered, you would get abuse from the factory managers. But there was nowhere the workers could take their complaints. The union chairman was an administrative manager of the plant, in cahoots with the boss, and paid no heed to worker grievances. Of course, K2 carried out regular inspections at the factory, but before each visit, they gave us warning, and so the factory “briefed” us on what to do. We were supposed to say that everything was just fine, the equipment was state-of-the-art, production standards were being met, production processes were all safe, workers never did overtime, and we were all one big happy family; and when they came, everything was properly locked or stored away, the factory was clean as a whistle, and the fans that were usually turned off were humming away. If you toed the line and told the inspectors what management wanted them to hear, you could get a 50 or 100 yuan bonus. But if you didn’t, you could be sacked.

Conditions in the living quarters were even worse than the factory floor, but during their probation period, workers had no choice but to use the communal dormitory and canteen. Wages were always very low, and each month you had to pay between 330 and 490 yuan out of your own pocket for use of the dormitory and canteen facilities. After you had settled in, wages were further eaten up by unwarranted fines and deductions. The most blatant illegal deduction was for the health check, for which new employees had to fork out 35 yuan. Work uniforms were also paid for by the workers themselves, and this came to yuan 20 in summer and 30 yuan in winter. If you lost your work card, you had to pay 50 yuan to get another one, and if you didn’t get a replacement you had to pay another fine.

There was no storage inside the dormitory, so we had nowhere to keep our personal things, and property was not secure. There was no power supply, so there was no way of recharging mobile phones. Some doors could not be locked and windows could not be shut properly. Many of the lights in the dormitory were broken. Most of the time, nobody came to fix these problems. The dormitory also lacked brooms and other cleaning equipment. The factory did not arrange for cleaners to come in and we had very little spare time so we didn’t really get around to that either. The place teemed with cockroaches and mice.

Collecting a long list of complaints

The workers resented all of this. I repeatedly discussed things with them during breaks and everybody had a list of complaints. In August 2010, I got together with a colleague named Wu and we collected the signatures of 42 fellow workers who accepted us as worker representatives. We presented our wage and benefit recommendations and proposed changes to the system of fines that the management used. But in the end, we achieved nothing, and, to my consternation, Wu was sacked. I myself was lucky to keep my job.

But we did not give up. Even though management ignored our demands, the more we workers exchanged information and discussed things amongst ourselves, the more colleagues were drawn to our cause. At the same time, I found three other workers with a strong interest in legal matters and work ers’ rights who also had the necessary qualities of commitment and confidence. The four of us formed a caucus of worker activists.

By the beginning of 2011, we felt that to remain working at such a plant would be to invite victimisation, but if we resisted, the worst we had to fear was being sacked. So we fought back. We stuck our necks out and declared our willingness to take on the factory management as worker representatives. We made a complaint to the labour authorities and to the Songgang township trade union in Bao’an district about the litany of legal violations and the lousy working environment we had to put up with at Jiasheng. But the labour authorities would not accept our complaints, and the union and the factory management likewise paid us no heed.

After thinking things over, we came up with what promised to be a more effective way of applying pressure - going through the American company, K2 and holding them to their corporate social responsibility pledges. After discussions, we thrashed out a list of 35 issues that we had identified at the factory. Through a range of channels, we relayed our grievances to K2 and asked them to support us and put pressure on the plant. This approach proved highly effective. On 12 April, K2 commissioned a third party investigation. After wide-ranging discussions with the workers, they gained a good idea of how things were, and the factory management also acknowledged that our complaints were 90 percent justified. Under these circumstances, the factory management posted an online notice that same day announcing the abolition of the plant’s system of fines and deductions, including deductions made for worker uniforms and health inspections.

Initiating negotiations

At the same time, management suggested that the workers could send representatives to formally negotiate a settlement of outstanding issues. So the four of us asked a wide range of colleagues what most concerned them and what they most wanted resolved, and prepared a package of demands. On 14 and 15 April, we were confirmed as the negotiating representatives of the workers. Finally, we drafted a list of demands, bearing nearly 30 percent of the workers’ signatures, and submitted this to representatives of K2. The three key and most urgent issues were:

(1) All workers at the factory should get a 20 percent pay raise, in line with the Shenzhen municipal government minimum wage increase in April 2011. General workers should get at least the minimum wage and skilled workers should have their basic pay increased by a further 20 percent.

(2) Management should reduce or abolish dormitory and spousal accommodation rentals, increase the daily living allowance for each worker to cover factory canteen costs, and make the management system more attuned to employee needs.

(3) Select factory union and labour arbitration committee members through fair, just and democratic elections, strengthen occupational health and safety measures, improve the working and living environment, and pay allowances for jobs that entail the handling of toxic and harmful materials or exposure to high temperatures, as required by law.

After the representatives of K2 received our list of demands, they were very supportive and agreed to chair a meeting between workers and management. So on 21 April, the four of us worker representatives sat down with seven executives of the factory and discussed the above three points face to face, with the representatives of K2 mediating. After some haggling, the factory management accepted 80 percent of our demands, and promised to raise wages by the margins proposed in our statement and carry out improvements as we suggested to welfare benefits and equipment. They also promised that they would not retaliate in any way against us worker representatives. All of these decisions were made public.

Rigged elections

On the afternoon of the 22nd, the factory management began to arrange a new election for the union committee, meeting the terms of our third demand. But, unfortunately, the head of the preparatory team was both a former union chairman and a section chief in the administrative department, and the workers involved in the election process were hand-picked by management. The workforce was required to accept this in silence. Some workers claimed the election was illegal, but the section chief merely replied “objection overruled.” In the end, the nominations were carried out illegally, and the attempt to arrange free union elections ended in failure.

Later, we four worker representatives were unhappy with the implementation of the other two announced measures. We continued to send reports, complaints and demands to K2, seeking the payment of wages in arrears. The factory management responded with threats and intimidation. On 6 May or thereabouts, they had to make a third announcement, with K2, to the effect that wages and benefits unreasonably withheld between January and May would be paid. We had now obtained satisfaction in all matters where we had sought improvement.

On 11 May, the union chairman visited me, for the third time since the negotiations started, and advised me to quit. Because the workers’ demands had basically all been met, plant operating costs had risen, he said, undermining competitiveness. He expected the number of orders to decline in the future, and said that this was not fair as far as the company was concerned. K2 had two other local OEM suppliers, he said, in Zhongshan and Dongguan, and working conditions there were worse than at Jiasheng. “Since you’re such a capable person,” he said, “why don’t you try and work your reforming wonders at the other two companies?”

I gave this some thought, and concluded that workers’ interests at Jiasheng were safeguarded now. Another worker representative called Long had already made the compromise gesture of quitting, and the other two representatives had received pledges from the management that they would not be pressured. Management had also agreed to let them join the union as representatives. I too felt as an employee of the company that I ought to put the interests of the plant and workers first, and so I agreed to management’s request. In the end, I agreed to terminate my employment contract with the plant, took the statutory amount of compensation, and left Jiasheng Sports Equipment.

Liu Dechang
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