Ariana Lindquist for The New York Times
Workers demonstrated outside the Honda factory in Zhongshan, China, on Friday.
Workers demonstrated outside the Honda factory in Zhongshan, China, on Friday.
A Labor Movement Stirs in China
By KEITH BRADSHER
ZHONGSHAN, China — Striking workers at a Honda auto parts plant here are demanding the right to form their own labor union, something officially forbidden in China, and held a protest march Friday morning.
Meanwhile, other scattered strikes have begun to ripple into Chinese provinces previously untouched by the labor unrest.
A near doubling of wages is the primary goal of the approximately 1,700 Honda workers on strike here in this southeastern China city, at the third Honda auto parts factory to face a work stoppage in the last two weeks.
A chanting but nonviolent crowd of workers gathered outside the factory gates on Friday morning and held a short protest march before dissolving into a large group of milling young workers who filled the two-lane road for more than a block outside the factory.
They were met by black-clad police with helmets, face masks and small round riot shields. But the workers showed no signs of being intimidated. The police marched off at midmorning, leaving the workers to block the road into the small industrial park next to a eucalyptus-lined muddy canal that runs past the factory.
The workers dispersed about an hour after the police left and remained on strike.
Management helped defuse the march by distributing a flier that essentially offered 50 renminbi, or about $7.30, for each of the eight days that the factory was closed beginning in late May as part of a nationwide shutdown of Honda manufacturing set off by a transmission factory strike. Management previously wanted to treat the shutdown as unpaid leave, workers said.
Only 50 or so striking workers showed up outside the factory after lunch on Friday. Managers distributed a new flier urging them to return to work in the afternoon and saying that all would be forgiven if they did.
But the flier contained no new offer on wages, and there was no sign that any workers were going back into the factory. One worker said that the newly chosen factory council was not holding any negotiations because it could be physically dangerous for all of the representatives to gather in one place with management and the authorities.
The worker, an activist in the labor unrest here, said that the strikers were waiting for a genuinely new offer from management before holding any more talks.
This latest strike, which started Wednesday morning, has taken on political dimensions.
The strikers here have developed a sophisticated, democratic organization, in effect electing shop stewards to represent them in collective bargaining with management. They are also demanding the right to form a trade union separate from the government-controlled national federation of trade unions, which has long focused on maintaining labor peace for foreign investors.
“The trade union is not representing our views; we want our own union that will represent us,” said a striking worker, who insisted on anonymity for fear of retaliation by government authorities or the company.
Geoffrey Crothall, the spokesman for China Labour Bulletin, a labor advocacy group based in Hong Kong that seeks independent labor unions and collective bargaining in mainland China, expressed surprise when told how the Honda workers here in Zhongshan had organized themselves. “It does reflect a new level of organization and sophistication” in Chinese labor relations, he said.
A Honda spokesman declined to comment on the details of the strike. The Chinese government has been relatively lenient in allowing coverage of the labor unrest because Honda is a Japanese company, and some anti-Japanese sentiment lingers in China as a legacy of World War II.
Despite unusual forbearance in allowing the various strikes so far, the Chinese government has shown no interest in tolerating unions with full legal independence from the national union.
Dozens of workers gathered in clumps shortly before sunset on Thursday in front of the sprawling parts factory and outspokenly criticized local authorities for seeming to side with the company.
The workers said that large numbers of police officers had been positioned in the factory on Wednesday and Thursday in an attempt to intimidate them. The two other Honda parts factories shut down by walkouts in recent weeks have reopened after workers were promised large pay increases.
The Chinese government has not allowed unions with full legal independence from the national, state-controlled union. But the government has occasionally finessed the issue by letting workers choose their factories’ representatives of the national union, or by allowing the creation of “employee welfare committees” in parallel with the official local units, said Mary E. Gallagher, a China labor specialist at the University of Michigan.
But these exceptions have tended to be in less prominent industries like shoe and garment manufacturing, and not in bastions of heavy industry like automaking.
Workers here were not specific Thursday about what would qualify as having their own union. They are mostly in their early 20s, more than half are women. Their education levels are low. Although several said they had high school degrees, Honda requires only junior high school educations.
The workers say they want to be paid as much as workers at the first Honda factory recently to go on strike, a high-tech transmission factory in Foshan where the workers are almost entirely young men with a couple of years of vocational school training in addition to high school degrees.
Besides the Honda strike here, there were new reports Thursday of strikes at Japanese- and Taiwanese-owned factories in at least five other cities. Four of the cities are outside the heavily industrial Guangdong Province, where all three Honda auto parts strikes have taken place.
But the strikes involving the other employers appeared to have ended quickly as managers, faced with an acute labor shortage, sought to address workers’ demands. Honda has settled the strikes at its other two factories as well.
Chinese-owned companies tend not to disclose when strikes have occurred, and it is not clear how many strikes over all have taken place in recent days.
The strike here has stopped work at a two-story factory that makes rear and side mirrors, door locks and a range of other auto parts for Honda assembly plants over the world. The workers here say that employees in each department of the factory held a meeting, discussed who would be their most persuasive representative and then selected that person to represent them on a factorywide council of about 20 workers that has held negotiations with management.
Municipal officials and representatives of the government-authorized labor union have also attended meetings of the workers’ council with management, workers said.
In a flier that workers said had been distributed to them by managers on Thursday morning, the factory's management said it was beyond their authority to recognize a union. The management asked workers to submit a detailed application for a separate trade union to a government labor board by June 19, and asked that the workers return to their jobs in the meantime.
The workers voiced skepticism that the company would meet their demands, mainly an 89 percent increase in their pay. It is currently 900 renminbi a month, or $132, for a 42-hour week. An 89 percent increase would be about 800 more renminbi a month, or a raise of about $117. Many workers in Guangdong province already earn considerably more than the minimum wage because of an acute labor shortage even before the strike started.
The minimum wage varies from city to city and changes frequently. It is currently 900 renminbi in Zhongshan, according to workers. Workers said that they had read news reports on the Internet that Honda had already granted raises of 500 renminbi a month, or $73, in settling other strikes. Honda has not confirmed the raises, indicating only that they were large in percentage terms.
Workers at the factory here said that their jobs required them to stand for eight hours a day at their posts, and that pregnant women were allowed to sit only in their last trimester. Workers also complained that they were not allowed to speak while working — a common requirement in Chinese factories — and that they had to obtain passes before going to the bathroom. They said they were criticized if managers thought they took too long getting a drink of water.
A municipal official standing with a group of private security guards outside the factory said that there was no evidence that Honda had broken any employment laws. The workers “just want more money, they’re inspired by the other Honda strikes,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity.
The strike began Wednesday morning after a woman employee showed up with her identity card improperly attached to her shirt and was denied entry by a security guard. The woman criticized the guard, who responded by shoving her to the ground, the workers said.
Workers said that the factory’s management had offered an increase of 100 renminbi a month in workers’ allowance for food and housing. The allowance is currently 300 renminbi a month, or $44.
Chen Xiaoduan in Shanghai contributed research