The Beijing Olympics and class struggle

Author: 

Paul Hampton

The Olympic spectacular in August this year is likely to be another step on China’s march towards great power status. For sure the media will marvel at the incredible stadia, the clean streets of the capital and the immensity of the country.

So spare a thought for the workers on Beijing’s Olympic construction sites, working for about US$5 a day, often not getting paid until the end of the year and sometimes not at all. To bring the sporting showpiece to the world, workers are toiling at least ten hours a day. They don’t get weekends off, nor any paid holiday, and most have no contract or medical insurance. Workers get nothing from the state-run ACFTU “trade union”, which scarcely even bothers with these sectors.

But for international socialists, the great hope is to see the emergence of the social forces in China that have the potential to transform the country from the bottom up — namely the Chinese working class.

A new report by the China Labour Bulletin (CLB) makes one thing clear: the struggle of the working class goes on, it develops, it deepens and it poised to breakthrough the totalitarian straitjacket of Stalinist state capitalism.

After decades of economic growth at around 10% a year, the Chinese working class has grown enormously. At the end of 2006, official figures estimated the national workforce at 764 million, with an urban workforce of 283 million. In private enterprises there were some 64 million workers — but the big growth area has been migrant workers.

Official figures estimate that there are 120 million migrant workers in China’s major cities, plus an additional 80 million rural workers employed at enterprises in their own villages and towns. The massive growth of migrant labour is doubly significant, as it has taken place against the backdrop of the huge shake out of workers in state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

 According to the Chinese government, during the seven-year period from 1998 to 2004, SOEs laid off six out of ten workers, some 30 million people. Between 1998 and 2000, seven to nine million workers were laid off each year.

This recomposition of the Chinese working class has had significant consequences. Whereas in the early years of the 21st century many of the most bitter disputes were waged by the traditional working class in the state sector, these workers have now been joined by the ever-growing numbers of private sector and illegal workers. 

Official figures registered 317,000 labour-dispute cases in 2006, of which 14,000 were collective labour disputes involving 350,000 workers. Similar figures were seen the previous year. This may well underestimate the real scale of class struggle going on in China.

 Broadly, two distinct types of disputes have been taking place. On the one hand, workers in the state owned and former state owned firms that have been privatised have taken action, while on the other workers in the new private sector firms have also stepped up their protests. Protests by workers during and after the restructuring and privatisation of SOEs have been the core component of worker unrest since 2000.

Some of these protests have taken place during the restructuring of the SOEs. In June 2005, over 400 workers at the Wuxi Commercial Building in Wuxi city struck to oppose the company’s restructuring. In mid-August, several thousand workers from the Chongqing Special Steel Company blocked the streets, demanding redundancy payments. 

Several thousand workers at the Chengdu Engine Factory, a military enterprise, went on strike in July 2005. In September 2005, more than 300 workers at the Zhongyuan Measuring Instrument Company in Sanmenxia city went on strike in protest at the company’s restructuring proposal. In November 2005, thousands of construction workers from four state-owned construction companies in Shenzhen protested in the streets. 

In January 2006, nearly 100 workers at the Qianjiang Chiyu Group in Hubei province staged a sit-in at the municipal government office to demand an investigation into alleged corruption during the company’s restructuring. In March that year, several thousand workers at the Yunnan Textile Plant in Kunming went on strike because only managers were permitted to attend a meeting about the company’s restructuring process. 

But some workers have carried on protests well after SOE restructuring has taken place. Struggles have taken place demanding new jobs, or better compensation. Some laid-off workers have demanded either re-employment at their former enterprise or to be granted formal retirement. For example, in 2005, several hundred laid-off workers at the Jingmen Petrochemical Company initiated a four-month protest demanding the restoration of their jobs, and more than 200 workers staged a sit-in at the front gate of the renamed North Heavy Industry Group, demanding their jobs back. More than 10,000 laid-off workers from the Anshan Steel Group protested demanding the restoration of their jobs and several thousand unemployed workers originally with the Shengli Oil Field blocked the oil field management offices for several days, demanding a dialogue with company managers.

 Others took action after managers reneged on promises made during restructuring. In February 2005, more than 100 teachers employed in schools engaged in a sit-in at the Sichuan Petroleum head office in Chengdu, carrying signs saying “peaceful protest” and “hunger strike.” In October of the same year, more than 400 workers staged a strike at the An County Paper Factory in Sichuan over the continued failure of the county government to pay economic compensation and social security expenses promised. In May 2006, more than 700 retired teachers from kindergartens and vocational schools, attached to what were originally SOEs in Yunnan Province, staged a sit-in at the front gate of the provincial government office.

In the private sector, by far the most important source of conflict between labour and management has been the non-payment of wages. In August 2005, nearly 600 workers from the Baoying Shoe Factory in Guangzhou blocked the streets in a protest over wage arrears going back for months. In September of the same year, more than 100 workers from the Zhiye Shoe Factory in Guangzhou took to the streets demanding that the factory pay their back wages. The next month, more than 200 workers from the Yongxiang Shoe Factory in Guangzhou blocked the path outside the factory gates, demanding their wages.

Around 140 workers from the Pushu Clothing Company in Hangzhou staged two protests in December 2005 demanding to be paid. And 300 workers at the Longgang district Jinbao Factory in Shenzhen staged four separate street blockades in April 2006.

Apart from non-payment of wages, another cause of worker protests has been low wages or management embezzlement of wages. In 2005 alone, nearly 1,000 workers at a factory in Shenzhen printing Hong Kong periodicals protested at management’s “fake” wage increase and 300 workers from the Qinghai Motor Factory in Guangzhou blocked the streets, demanding an increase in pay. 

In June, 3,000 workers at the Futai Wool Knitwear Factory in Guangdong launched a strike over low wages. The following month, nearly 1,000 workers at the Meixing Shoe Company in Guangdong went on strike to protest management’s cutting their wages. At the same time, more than 500 workers from the Toshiba Dalian Company went on strike as the management increased the production line speed while paying low wages. 

Workers have also taken action when employers have blatantly violated labour laws and regulations. In June 2005, more than 20 workers unfurled a banner at the Beijing headquarters of the Siemens Corporation protesting layoffs of workers and unfair treatment. In November that year, over 3,000 workers at Del Coro Co Ltd. (a wholly-owned Italian company) in Shenzhen went on strike in protest at the beating of several workers’ representatives who had asked for an audit of wages by the Italian manager. In April 2006, several thousand workers at Ruifeng Timber Co Ltd. in Shenzhen attempted to present a petition to Chinese leaders, protesting at the company’s compulsory overtime system

Health and safety strikes have taken place – not surprising in a country where in 2006 there were a staggering 15,000 workplace deaths – a third of them in coal mining. In March 2005, nearly 5,000 workers at a jewellery factory in Guangdong staged a three-day strike, demanding independent medical examinations after 12 workers were diagnosed with suspected silicosis.

Perhaps most significantly, urban workers employed in the private sector have increasingly used strike action to protest management abuses. For example in 2005, several hundred workers at the newly privatised Chengdu People’s Department Store in Sichuan went on strike and protested at the municipal government office against the management’s violations of their rights, and at beatings, chastising and searching them arbitrarily.

Management pay at the expense of workers was at the centre of other disputes. In July 2005, more than 3,000 workers went on strike at the Changba Lead-Zinc Mine in Longnan county, Gansu. Nearly 6,000 employees at the Feiya Textile Company in Anhui province, went on strike for five days in October-November that year, in protest at the growing wage gap between workers and management. And in February 2006, nearly 1,000 workers at the Heze Cotton Textiles Factory in Shandong province went on strike over low pay.

The new factor in the last few years of Chinese workers’ struggles is the increase in the proportion and number of protests by migrant workers.

Migrant workers in private enterprises most commonly demanded payment of wages in arrears, salary increases, and improved working conditions. Low wages were the reason for the strikes in September 2005 by 30,000 workers from more than ten Japanese-invested enterprises in the Dalian development zone. Workers used the concentration of enterprises to their advantage: because factory buildings and worker dormitories adjoined each other, it was easier for workers from the different companies to communicate with each other. When workers heard of the successful strike at the Toshiba factory, news spread quickly and workers at other companies went on strike with similar demands. It is clear that such widespread strikes could not have occurred without some kind of planning and organisation.

And other strikes have gone beyond wage struggles and included the right to organise.

Some 16,000 workers at the Japanese-invested Uniden Electronics Corporation in Shenzhen went on strike for three days to demand the establishment of a trade union in April 2005. This was the fourth strike since 2000. Unfortunately, because it was the ACFTU that was recognised, workers have not won independent representation. That was proven when management was allowed to nominate the union officers!

The China Labour Bulletin report concludes that, “workers in China increasingly share a common interest and face a common adversary. Indeed, the situation in China today is analogous to the pre-unionised period in Western industrialized countries where workers were routinely exploited by industrialists and factory owners. The trade union movement grew as a response to that exploitation…”

The report is right. Socialists must do everything we can to support Chinese workers’ struggles – and hope that they celebrate the Olympics by striking out on their own independent road.   

• China Labour Bulletin (CLB), Speaking Out: The Workers’ Movement in China (2005-2006), December 2007

www.clb.org.hk/en/files/File/research_reports/Worker_Movement_Report_final.pdf