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What China's Largest Strike Against a Private Company Means for Your Gadgets

Thirty thousand workers are now striking at China's largest shoe factory.
Image: Fang HSIEH/Flickr

Thirty thousand Chinese workers are on strike in the factories of China’s biggest shoe manufacturer, the Associated Press reports. Those plants, operated by Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings, produce many of the world’s favorite shoe brands, including Nike, Adidas, and New Balance. According to labor issues scholar Wang Jiangsong, it might just be the largest strike against a private company in modern Chinese history.

Workers at Yue Yuen Industrial have been striking on-and-off since April 5th, and the mass of striking workers and staff has been steadily growing. For a little perspective on how fast this is growing, on April 16th, Bloomberg reported that just 1,000 workers were on strike at the sneaker factory. So far, there have been reports of police detaining labor rights advocates and beating strikers for holding banners.

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At issue is a call for greater social welfare payouts like housing and pensions. Many employers in China, like Yue Yuen Industrial, promise to house and feed their migrant workforce in company housing complexes. According to workers, the company has been reneging on those promises.

The Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings Ltd. factory is, like many other plants in Guangdong, a popular destination for migrant workers who’ve left the countryside to find work. Dongguan in particular must serve as a rude awakening to the arriving workers. Dubbed “China’s Sin City” by the New York Times, it’s a hotbed for prostitution and holds the dubious honor of hosting one of China’s largest local sex industries.

The city is also the site of one of China’s largest illegal e-waste markets, according to a recent UN report. Re-selling e-waste—the discarded refuse of computers, LCD screens, and other tech from the Global North—is a dangerous undertaking which exposes the individual and the environment to toxic chemicals. It is perhaps especially important in this environment that migrant workers are afforded the housing and meals they were promised by Yue Yuen Industrial prior to their arrival in Dongguan.

The strike at Yue Yuen Industrial is just the latest installment in the rapidly progressing saga of the recent Chinese labor movement. Since 2010, Southern China has seen a wave of strikes and collective action on the part of workers. What’s more, the workers are winning.

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This strike comes in the wake of what was dubbed a “wildcat” strike at an IBM factory in Shenzhen in March, a city near Dongguan in Guangdong province. In October 2012, a strike at Henan Xinfei Electric Company was 12,000 workers strong. 2010 was also a banner year for the labor movement in China, as wages were doubled at Foxconn and increased by 24 percent at Honda after a worker strike.

The request of workers at the Yue Yuen Industrial sneaker plant for social benefits instead of a slightly higher paycheck may indicate the latest maturation of the workers movement in China, and its increasing strength. With 30,000 workers on strike and counting, it doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.

But not without efforts from the company: According to the Wall Street Journal, Yue Yuen Industrial has made promises of a "delayed payment to social insurance and the housing fund

As these strikes continue to gain ground, the production of the majority of our consumer goods and technologies could be interrupted, their availability impacted. That is, after all, the power and purpose of striking: regaining control of labor through refusal. A factory shutdown is a victory, in this regard.

Now that tens of thousands of workers are striking at once, this scenario doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The scope of demands, from immediate wage-related issues to social welfare, has widened, indicating a burgeoning movement broaching on wider concerns.

If workers become politicized, for example, the Global North may have some serious production shortfalls to deal with. Though this situation may be inconvenient, should it occur, all us deprived techies should remember that peoples’ lives are on the line.