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The Workers Who Make Your Sneakers Are Mad As Hell

Demonstrations in China could signal a significant shift in labor relations for the world’s largest manufacturer.

by Olivia Becker
Apr 15 2014, 3:35pm

Photo via North Drift Migrant Workers

The people that make your Adidas, Nike, and Reebok sneakers have been protesting in China for the past three days over unpaid social security and housing benefits for workers.

Laborers at the Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings in Dongguan, Guangdong province began protesting on Saturday, with over 600 people taking to the streets before being stopped by police. The protests continued on Monday with over 1,000 participants, according to Yue Yuen. Some groups put the numbers higher — Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin said the number of protesters hit 10,000. Workers also occupied the factory’s dormitory in a general strike on Monday.

"The factory has been tricking us for 10 years," one worker said, according to the BBC. "The [local] government, labour bureau, social security bureau, and the company were all tricking us together."

According to Yue Yuen, the demonstrations were a result of a “misunderstanding” of benefits awarded to local and migrant workers.

"The misunderstanding has to be clarified by the government, in particular any difference between local and migrant workers when they claim their benefits,” a spokesman for Yue Yuen told Reuters.

Yue Yuen is the biggest athletic shoe manufacturer in the world, and employs 60,000 workers in the district. It has factories elsewhere in China, and in Indonesia, Vietnam, the United States, and Mexico.

The embarrassing condition of China's environment and air quality has prompted its leadership to formally declare a “war on pollution.” Read more here.

The demonstrations at Yue Yuen are the latest in a series of labor strikes that have taken place in China and threatened the operations of major companies. Workers in other companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Nokia, and International Business Machines Corp. also staged demonstrations and have gone on strike in recent months.

The action highlights the rise of labor activism in China due to a shrinking labor base and the emergence of workers that have decided to take matters into their own hands to fight unfair labor conditions, lack of social benefits, and general mistreatment. These protests are reshaping the power dynamic between workers and corporations, and could signal a significant shift in labor relations for the world’s largest manufacturer.

The labor-rights group China Labour Bulletin reported 1,171 strikes and protests between June 2011 and December 2013. Forty percent of those worker protests were in the manufacturing sector, and nearly 60 percent of those factory protests were in Guangdong province.

This increased activism is primarily a result of a growing labor shortage in China, which has allowed workers to leverage higher wages and better working conditions. Many corporations are feeling these protests tighten costs in their operations. Samsung, for example, was forced to raise overtime wages after strikes. And last month, 1,000 Chinese workers at an IBM factory in Shenzen walked off the job, forcing IBM to engage in worker negotiations.

Around 1000 activists gathered in southwest China to protest against the proposed construction of a petrochemical plant. Read more here.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928