China on strike: Migrant workers who make our stuff speak up

A migrant worker steps out of his home next to a coal power plant in Beijing. (Photo from REUTERS / Damir Sagolj)
A migrant worker steps out of his home next to a coal power plant in Beijing. (Photo from REUTERS / Damir Sagolj)

When you pull that fancy smartphone out of your pocket every few minutes, you probably don’t think much about what went into making it. And as you’re checking your email or sending a quick tweet, it’s probably difficult to relate to the lives of the many migrant workers here in the U.S., let alone those across the ocean in China.

But on Monday night, Parisol (Pacific Rim Solidarity Network) hosted two labor organizers who are working directly with those Chinese migrants, for a dialogue with Seattleites about the impacts of global capitalism. 

Francine Chan was visiting from Hong Kong and Mei Leung joined in from China via Skype. The conversation delved into the stories of workers who are employed by some of the biggest companies in the world — Apple, Nike and Honda – whose products many of us use every day.

“When we talk about migrant workers, we always say that they are semi-proletarian,” said Leung, who focused her presentation on gender inequality and capitalism. She explained that migrants often start on small pieces of land in the countryside, but find it financially impossible to survive there, so they have to go to the city in search of jobs.

Women whose husbands go to work in the city are often left behind in these rural locations and deal with issues like depression and anxiety.

“There have been large numbers of women suicides in rural areas for a long time in China, so a lot of female workers are willing to get back to work even if the working situations are really bad. So they go into the city to escape this isolation,” said Leung.

Once the women reach the city, a whole new wave of issues arise. Making up a third of the workforce, their labor rights are often violated and they’re susceptible to occupational injuries, sexual harassment and a lack of social security.

“Even if you live and work in the city you don’t have access to childcare services and your children can not enjoy the appropriate education,” continued Leung. She also noted the lack of police intervention when it came to reports of domestic violence.

Once the floor was opened up to questions, it was clear many in the audience were curious about the nature of feminism in China.

“There is no strong feminism movement in China,” said Leung. “But lots of activists have come out in the past 10 years,” she continued, staying positive that this will change in coming years.

“I don’t know much about the workforce issues in China, so I was really interested in seeing what these women would say,” said audience member, Jocelyn Castro after Leung’s presentation. “I think it’s great that they’re using their voice to try to inform people like me who are somewhat clueless.”

During the second half of the discussion, Francine Chan spoke on some of the recent strikes in China and the challenges to these workers taking collective action.

China on strike
Francine Chan talks about the 2010 strike at a Honda car lock factory in China that led the way for workers taking collective action. (Photo by Elizabeth Alvarado)

One of the biggest strikes was in 2010 when nearly 200 workers at the Honda auto parts plant in Foshan refused to work for 19 days. The workers wanted a wage increase, better conditions for student interns (who make up 1/3 of the workforce) and democratic elections for union representatives at the factory.

“The Honda strike is very important because it became an international case, so people in other countries also know about it because it was on the news. It was under the spotlight in the country at that time which is why the government tried to solve the problems as quickly as possible,” said Chan.

“I do remember hearing about the Honda strike all over the news back then,” said audience member Tyler Stolz. “It’s crazy,”

After the government intervened, the workers’ demands were met, giving organizers hope that conditions overall would improve.

However, as Chan explained, that wasn’t the case. Another big strike arose in 2014, this time at the Lide Shoe Factory in Panyu, where workers protested unpaid benefits and the proposed relocation of the factory. But despite the factory producing shoes for popular western brands like Coach, the strike didn’t garner the same international attention as the Honda strike had, and as a result, workers has a harder time getting their demands met.

“We’re now in hope that through different struggles workers may form their own organization in a slow process,” said Chan, when asked whether she thought union representation was on the rise in China overall. “In the end, they might have more political demands.”

For Americans, the best way to lend your support is learn more about just what Chinese workers are up against. You can hear that directly from two such workers in a couple weeks, when Mi Tu and Fan Gang, contributing authors of the new book, “China on Strike: Narratives of Worker’s Resistance.” will be in Seattle. They’ll be presenting at the AFL-CIO hall in the Central District on April 11 at 6:00 p.m. and at the UW in the Communications building, room 120 on April 14 at 4:00 p.m.

The flier for additional China on Strike events next month. (Photo by Elizabeth Alvarado)
The flier for additional events next month. (Photo by Elizabeth Alvarado)
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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for covering this story. Despite being one of the worlds largest manufacturers of good for the U.S., the Chinese do not realize that American consumers do care about working conditions and rights. Slowly they are becoming aware of the real costs and are sympathetic to the workers. I encourage you to keep going, get the word out. We, the people, will support you!

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