China has more strikes per year than any other country, many thousands. These strikes are often unplanned, spontaneous, even chaotic, and the bosses stop at nothing to suppress them: they lie, cheat, call in the police, and hire gangsters to intimidate strikers or even beat them up.
But the strikes keep happening—especially when it becomes clear, usually by the removal of machinery, that the owner is relocating the factory. These frequent relocations have one main cause: employers are moving to regions of China where the wages are lower.
Fan Shigang’s new book Striking to Survive gives workers’ oral histories of three strikes between 2012 and 2016 in the Pearl River Delta, also known as “the workshop of the world.” Workers in that region, Shigang writes, have finally dug in their heels.
One strike was against a factory that supplied furniture to Walmart; two were against a supplier of the hip Japanese clothing corporation Uniqlo. In both factories the workers struck to stop relocations, although the Uniqlo supplier workers also walked out over pensions and housing funds.
But one thing becomes clear when reading about their grievances and working conditions: they had plenty of genuine complaints long before relocation became an issue.
Many workers put in 12-hour days, six days a week—sometimes even seven days a week. Many had the cost of inedible cafeteria food deducted from their pay. Most did not receive mandatory pension contributions from their boss.
Factory discipline was enforced with cameras and fines. Taking a day off led to firing or a fine. Minor infractions were fined. And once the workers actually struck, their elected delegates were arrested, while the workers themselves were assaulted.