Workers at Stella International Shoe Factories (Xing Ang and Xing Xiong) Protest in Dongguan, China

00:15 Apr 21 2004 Dongguan, Dongguan City, Guangdong, People's Republic of China

From The Christian Science Monitor:

For laborers at the sprawling Selena shoe factory, tensions had brewed for months. The food was free but bad, and getting worse, with fewer meat dishes and too many mushy vegetables. For migrant workers manning an assembly line 11 hours a day, bad meals are a cause of anger.

Shoe orders were coming thick and fast, however, which gratified everyone. In the "factory of the world" - China's southern Guangdong Province, which exports everything from lawn furniture to baseball gloves - migrant laborers will switch factories if they don't get overtime.

Migrants work six days a week and live in fetid rooms with 15 people in order to save money. So the steady extra work brought anticipation among the 20,000 workers for a big pay day.

Yet on pay day, inexplicably, the pay didn't add up. Workers just exploded.

It takes a lot for Chinese laborers to strike, then riot. They know the rules. But at two shoe plants owned by Taiwan's Stella International, strikes led to a day and a half of riots, attended by beatings of workers from hired security squads. Workers trashed a cafeteria and computer room, and overturned the owner's car.

Eight migrants were arrested, went on trial last month, and now await a sentence. Last week outside the two plants where 6,000 laborers went briefly wild in April, tensions are still high. Only employee residents are allowed into or out the walled compound including the factory and dormitories - not even workers' friends are allowed in.

"Maybe it was against the rules but I was sympathetic with the protesters," says a four-year Stella veteran who has seen her pay grow by just $35 per year. "We [migrants] put a lot into this plant, but in the end we will get nothing. Only the pay. We are migrants and they can replace us. They don't care, we know that. But when we leave we need to have saved something for the future."

Greed and the Party blamed
Stella factories, by reputation, are not considered poor work places. By Delta standards, labor experts say, they are decent. Yet in what labor activists say was a historic defense of the Stella workers charged with "intentional destruction" of property (usually the trial is pro forma), Beijing lawyer Gao Zhisheng reversed the blame for the riot. Mr. Gao said the "greed" of the owners was "the real reason" for the incident, blamed the Communist Party for standing "shoulder to shoulder" with the capitalists, and said the root problem was the lack of workers' rights to voice their grievances.

Guangdong's economy, the engine of the Pearl River Delta, has grown at 15 to 20 percent for years. The blend of endless cheap labor from the countryside, a free-market ethos, and advanced power and transport infrastructure is the reason China averages $1 billion a week in foreign direct investment. Yet as cities like Dong Guan have mushroomed to 5 million residents from 40,000, and boast new skyscrapers and hotels and hundreds of newly purchased cars a day, migrant wages have risen microscopically.

But a decade into a manufacturing boom that wows the world, Chinese workers are also maturing; and their aspirations are expanding in a manner that implicitly challenges the cheap labor paradigm that makes up China's competitive advantage. A recent labor shortage in the Pearl River Delta may itself be partly due to worker unhappiness.

To be sure, migrants fresh from peasant villages are known to look agog at earnings like 500 to 900 yuan a month ($60 to $110) in the city. At home, they might make only 200 ($25). Yet during the peak of China's boom, over the past 12 years in the Delta, migrant wages have risen only 68 yuan or $8, according to State Council figures. Migrants are actually losing, not gaining, as urban living and food costs are rising, the figures show.

Moreover, as profit margins for exports slow worldwide, a clash may ensue between Chinese factory owners and workers who want better pay and protections. China has many laws covering labor wages and safety. But as labor expert Han Dong Fan points out, workers like those at Stella have no unions or formal means to complain about ill-treatment. He adds, "The laws are rarely enforced. The emphasis is on protecting owners, to ensure continued investment."

Today, migrants who have lived in the Delta for five years are no longer wet behind the ears. They watch TV, want to get married, want service-sector jobs, training, better skills, and promotions; they can afford to be choosier, know how to network, and have new options.

"Two things have changed in the past year or so," says Mr. Sung, a Korean supplier to Delta shoe factories. "Profit margins have narrowed. But also the eyes of the migrant workers have opened. They are smarter than before. They will ask questions now."

Officials acknowledge tension
Even some Chinese officials warn of a possible conflict if migrants don't get a better shake. "There will be problems if the workers' salaries stay the same while the national average rises," says former State Council researcher Wang Xiao Qiang. Chinese studies show this is exactly what is happening.

In late summer, Delta factories did have labor shortages, surprising for a country of 1.3 billion people. In the countryside roughly 80 percent of an estimated 800 million peasants have lowpaying jobs. Yet the number of factory workers is only temporarily down, sources say. Signs outside factory gates put up in June that invite workers are still out. Most ask for workers with middle school diplomas. Some foreign owners complain they can't find employees. Yet few experts believe China has a serious labor shortage. What it may have are periodic shortages of the most ideal workers: migrants who are skilled, female, and young.

"If we have a real shortage, we know people who can pick up the phone and call the Labor Ministry in several provinces," says a Hong Kong-based chief executive officer. "We call Sichuan and say, we need a thousand people, and a week later we get a thousand. I don't take the 'shortage' too seriously."

The lack of enforceable regulations in many factories has created an ideal situation for owners, labor sources say - no unions, no watchdogs, no history of tough legal actions, no local free press (there has been no story of the Selena strike in any mainland media). In fact, as a new report by Human Rights in China points out, labor problems are often murky because much information on labor is classified as "secret." News of strikes and wage rates are labeled "highly secret."

A study this year, however, showed agreement among factory owners and government officials that "if labor laws are strictly enforced, the region will be less attractive to investors," as Chinese Academy of Social Sciences member Tan Shen found.

The defendants in the Selena strike case remain in prison. Gao, their lawyer, argues that to be convicted of criminal charges, the eight migrants must be shown to have had premeditated intent to riot - but all the testimony indicates the anger was spontaneous, breaking out in both plants on pay day. He also points out that none of the eight arrested, including his client, Chen Nanliu, did anything different than the other 6,000 rioters; to convict, they must be shown as more responsible than others.

"Traditionally, China is worried about its image in order to protect the party from looking tarnished or dirty," says Han Dong Fan of China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong. "Now what you see are cases where it is not the party that is being protected from the voices of workers, but the bosses. To the workers, this is obvious."

Workers wanted - as long as they're female
In the noon sun, Mao Zhen fidgets outside the huge Selena shoe factory - waiting to submit a work application. A veteran migrant, Mr. Mao is confident about the assembly-line job, his neat appearance, and the wages he will accept - everything except his gender.

At a time when most factories in Guangdong have "help wanted" signs posted at their gates, Mao says what that really means is "female" workers wanted. He is holding a wad of 500 yuan ($60) for a requisite downpayment to Selena that is related solely to being male. Females applicants pay nothing to be hired.

"We are regarded as troublemakers more than females are," Mao says. "If we want a job, we have to put down a deposit."

In the Pearl River Delta, young female migrants are prized by management and owners, and easily out- compete males. There is a famous saying that women workers are "geng lao shir," or more quiet and quiescent.

Women make up some 68 percent of the roughly 20 million migrant workers in the Delta, and some experts say the current labor shortage is a female labor shortage - since women outnumber men in skilled trades like electronics, garments, and food processing.

Mr. Li, who owns a joint venture factory in Shenzen that makes cellphone parts, will hire only female workers. His long-employed technical staff is made up of five men. But the 40 assembly-line workers are women, seen as more careful and patient.

"The women don't make trouble," Li says. "You hire men, or a lot of men, and they want to run around. They aren't reliable. They will steal. They have that reputation."

In factory living, in the crowded worker's dormitories, men and women live separately.

Usually the men live 15 to 20 to a room, and they pay about $10 a month. Many married workers live separately in the big cities, even while working within a few miles or even blocks of each other.

From Socialism Today:

N A sensational victory for Chinese workers and international campaigners, ten young workers (the oldest is 23 years old) in Guangdong province, jailed for protesting against pay cuts and medieval conditions at shoe factories owned by Stella International, were freed on New Year’s Eve.

At their trials in October and November, the ‘Stella Ten’ were sentenced to a combined 21 years in prison (three of the ten, minors, received suspended sentences totalling six years). The ten were, according to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, "singled out as scapegoats and sentenced to prison terms as a warning to others".

Five thousand workers, mostly migrants from China’s poor interior, went on strike in April 2004 at two plants belonging to the Taiwanese-owned company that makes shoes for global brands such as Reebok, Nike, Timberland and New Balance. The average monthly wage of these workers was $55 – less than the retail price of a pair of Reeboks. After deductions for meals, dormitories and other items, workers were left with about $27! According to media reports, the strikers went "briefly wild", trashing a cafeteria and a computer room and overturning the bosses’ car. Months later, police picked out ten ‘leaders’ who were charged with ‘intentional destruction’ of property. No charges were pressed against company security guards who beat up some of the workers.

Alongside other groups, the CWI and the website it launched last year,, organised a campaign of pressure on the Chinese authorities. Joe Higgins, the Socialist Party (CWI Ireland) member of parliament, helped publicise the Stella workers’ case internationally when he pressed the Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern – prior to his recent visit to China – over workers’ rights. On 31 December the court in Dongguan city commuted the prison terms to suspended sentences. This retreat is clearly political, under orders from the highest levels of the officially ‘communist’ regime. It underlines important shifts taking place within Chinese society and the Beijing government.

From the Washington Post:

Stella International Ltd., a Taiwanese-owned shoe manufacturer employing 42,000 people in and around Dongguan, faced strikes this spring that turned violent. At one point, more than 500 rampaging workers sacked company facilities and severely injured a Stella executive, leading hundreds of police to enter the factory and round up ringleaders.

"We never had anything like that before," said Jack Chiang, Stella's chief executive.

Chiang suggested that several factors have contributed to the shift in attitude. On the one hand, he acknowledged, assembly-line wages have not risen in recent years nearly as fast as the cost of living. On the other, image-conscious U.S. retailers who buy Dongguan's shoes have demanded better treatment and human rights counseling for the workers, encouraging them to step up and make demands for change.

Finally, Chiang added, broader general freedoms in the country have reduced the Chinese people's traditional fear of authority, and not just among factory workers. Protests by farmers and others, many of them violent, have broken out with increasing frequency across the country in recent months.

The growing assertiveness of factory workers has posed a particular political problem for the governing Communist Party, which ideologically should champion poor laborers struggling against capitalist managers. But local governments have become shareholders in many of the factories, steering officials toward the management side of labor relations.

"The government is the largest boss in the area," said Liu Kaiming, a labor analyst and director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation in nearby Shenzhen.

From CLB:

At least eight detained workers from the large Taiwanese-owned shoe company, Stella International, have been tried on criminal charges of "intentional destruction of property" since late August, following a mass protest by workers at two of the company's shoe factories in the southern Chinese city of Dongguan on April 21 and 23. The first trial, of five workers from Stella's Xing Ang factory, took place at the Dongguan Municipal Peoples Court on 25 August; the second trial, of three workers from the companys Xing Xiong factory, took place at the same courthouse on 8 September. Both trials were held "in camera" because some of the defendants are under 18 years old.

On the evening of 21 April, more than 4,000 workers staged a mass protest at the Xing Xiong Shoe Factory over low wages, wage arrears and the poor meals provided at the factorys canteen. The problem that directly sparked off the protest was the factory's decision to reallocate the workers overtime hours from the weekend to weekdays, resulting in substantially lower overtime rates being paid. Two nights later, on 23 April 2004, about 1,000 other workers at Stella Internationals Xing Ang Shoe Factory staged a similar mass protest. Both protest actions turned rowdy: some machinery and other company equipment was damaged and a manager at one of the factories was injured. Around ten workers were secretly detained by police shortly after the two mass actions, and dozens of other workers are said to have been fired for participating in the protests.

The Shengzhi Law Firm, based in Beijing and headed by Lawyer Gao Zhisheng, represented six of the detained Stella workers at their separate trials on 25 August and 8 September. No verdicts have yet been announced on any of the eight defendants in the two trials.

An edited translation of Lawyer Gaos defence speech on behalf of Xing Ang worker Chen Nanliu is presented below. (CLB has recently also received copies of the defence statements made by Gaos law firm on behalf of two of the detained workers from the Xing Xiong factory, and they contain similar points and arguments as those made on Chen Nanliu's behalf.)
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