Workers Strike at Yantian Port in Shenzhen

20:47 Apr 7 2007 Yantian District, 沙头角 Shatoujiao, Shenzhen City, Guangdong, People's Republic of China

From the Taipei Times:

Several hundred workers at a major southern Chinese port have ended a strike after securing a pay raise and receiving clearance to organize a union, news reports and an employee at the port operator said yesterday.

Crane operators at the Yantian International Container Terminals, or YICT, near the southern town of Shenzhen stopped working from Friday evening to the early hours of Sunday, a man who answered the phone at the port's offices said.

The employee said the strike was resolved but added that he did not have information on what the workers demanded and what concessions management made.

"We reached an agreement," he said. He declined to give his name because he was not authorized.

The employee said he did not know how many workers went on strike and that the port was still assessing how badly the strike affected its operations.

Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po newspaper said more than 300 workers went on strike.

Citing anonymous sources, it reported that management agreed to raise wages by 3 percent.

The South China Morning Post reported the workers also won the right to organize a union.

The Post quoted an unnamed worker at the Yantian port as questioning whether the union will protect workers.

"The general trade union of Shenzhen and the management will set up the union, not the workers themselves. We don't even have the right to elect the union head," he was quoted as saying.

From News China Magazine:

he Yantian strike began when more than 400 workers held a sit-in at the company’s dining hall on a Friday, when most of the management were absent. Demanding a considerable sum of outstanding overtime pay, the workers raised a banner calling for “co-construction and sharing.”

Despite offering a decent initial pay packet, Yantian International had become notorious for failing to raise employee salaries – no stevedore or regular staff member had seen a raise in 10 years despite steep profit growth. In fact, when inflation was taken into account, employee pay had in fact dropped.

“Such straightforward demands had never been seen in previous strikes,” said Wang Tongxin, deputy director of the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU). “They were no longer satisfied with simply serving as cheap labor.”

The strike at Yantian International was seen as a watershed case by Wang, as rather than fighting for mere material interests, workers at Yantian International were asking for a right to share in their employer’s growth and to be given a voice of their own. The most publicized demand was for a labor union of “front-line workers” – which, Wang explained, meant a union independent of the company’s management structure.

Before 2007, it was illegal in China to establish a labor union in a private or foreign-owned enterprise. While labor leaders had lobbied the government to change the law, their entreaties had fallen on deaf ears. Stories of profiteering and worker exploitation in Shenzhen failed to initiate action, as the government feared the prospect of investors, attracted by the anti-union laws upheld in the city, would be put off if workers were given the right to form a union. One shipping firm announced that, were its workers permitted to unionize, the docks would cease to operate. In 2006, a major foreign-owned company petitioned the city’s Party secretary to block any pro-union legislation, threatening that any such action could derail a major infrastructure project. With only the voice of business to answer to, the government had little incentive to court worker opinions.

However, Wang told our reporter that as manufacturing declined and investment diverted into high-tech and innovative enterprises, an abundance of capital paired with the limited availability of skilled workers forced a change in strategy.

“We were no longer short of money,” Wang said, adding that financial incentives were a cost-effective way to attract the best and brightest workforce to Shenzhen.

Credibility Crisis

However, when the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions, a Party-affiliated organization, offered to help found Yantian International’s first labor union, workers protested. State-controlled labor unions are the only workers’ organizations permitted in China, and few serve any function beyond organizing company outings. Union members themselves often see their organizations as a buffer between management and labor rather than advocates of workers’ rights.

“Our credibility is in question,” said Wang. “Our comrades used to say we mediate between labor and capital, but a union is supposed to be on the side of the workers.”

The average union in China typically acts as a go-between, keeping the workforce quiet while gently pressing management for the occasional concession. Wang believes this model has had its day. In the early days of Reform and Opening-up, the intervention of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in labor disputes was often welcomed, as few workers were aware of their rights, and those that were feared retribution for any industrial action. The federation could step in as mediator, ease tensions and, occasionally, wrest a pay raise or other benefits from management. However, with money and power in China increasingly entwined, workers have come to distrust their State-appointed representatives, questioning their interests.

In the 1980s and 90s, during the heyday of China’s industrial boom, migrant workers were abundant and easily replaced. Salaries were low, and worker safety ignored. In the 1990s and early 2000s, factory fires in the industrialized Pearl River delta killed dozens of workers. Suicides were a regular occurrence in larger enterprises, where sweatshop conditions were endured for mere cents an hour. Any attempt to unionize would result in detentions, arrests, even violence.

Though all citizens technically have the right to lodge a formal complaint against their employer with their local government labor bureau, few complaints are acted upon. Factory bosses are typically friendly with the authorities, and the sheer volume of complaints often overwhelm the skeleton staff employed by China’s labor bureaus. As a result, civil unrest became a feature of industrial disputes, with frustrated employees, denied a release valve for their frustrations, taking to the streets. Labor disputes began to be a daily feature of life in Shenzhen, China’s manufacturing showroom, threatening to gut the city’s prosperity.

Democratic Model?

The federation itself had to change its role. Unions in private and foreign-owned enterprises could not be imposed on a workforce. Rather, the workforce should elect its own representatives.

“In the past the federation played the role of organizer,” said Wang. “Now we had to let the workers organize by themselves.” Wang told our reporter that, while both captains of industry and government cadres had perceived elected unions as a potential source of unrest, his department was coming round to the idea that they could potentially avert crises sparked by avoidable abuses such as embezzlement of back pay. Also, they could facilitate communication between workers and managers, something which was impossible under the leadership of distrusted State-mandated union representatives.

At the end of 2012, employees of HGST, a manufacturer of storage devices under Japan’s Hitachi brand name, moved to strike to protest against a planned equity transfer deal, which employees believed would undercut their interests in the company. The strike continued for 22 days before the issue was resolved, with the main obstruction to negotiations being the workers’ refusal to allow their State-sponsored union representatives to take their part in negotiations.

The SFTU was forced to act. Rather paradoxically, it mandated the establishment of elected unions in 163 Shenzhen-based companies with more than 1,000 employees, beginning this year.

“Party leadership of labor unions does not mean that the Party should hand-pick the union committee chairman,” said Wang. The most vital aspect of capital-labor relations is negotiation between both parties on an equal footing. We need to rely on the labor union, not the individual worker, to act against employer misconduct.”

Wang also added that workers, even unionized workers, are usually more yielding than management, as they have more to lose in the event of a company collapse.

“My experience has convinced me that no workers protest in order to kill a company,” he said, adding that he saw the development of independent unions as a vital stage in the process of China’s “democratization.”

Yantian International’s newly-elected union successfully secured a two percent pay raise for its workers in 2008 amid the global recession, while other Shenzhen enterprises were cutting worker salaries and enforcing layoffs. In 2010, the union delivered a 10 percent raise, meeting its pledge to the workforce and winning their trust.

Wang Dongchuan, chairman of Yantian International’s labor union, said he recently heard a complaint from a stevedore who claimed the union had been idle since 2010. Wang asked the man if he felt mistreated, to which the worker replied: “No.”

“So you’ve got a pay raise every year, and you haven’t been mistreated,” Wang replied. “That’s the function of a labor union."

From CLB:

Demands for increased pay, better bonus rates, higher housing allowances, payment of overtime, and permission to form an independent union. After government and local union intervention, management agrees to wage increase and unionization.

From Cao Xuebing at the China Policy Institute Blog, a critical assessment of subsequent events:

The September 2013 Yantian Dock strike was a prominent event in the recent Chinese labour movement, not only because of the workers’ partial victory, but also due to the exposure of the ACFTU’s failure on workplace union reform. Moreover, the event showed Chinese dock workers’ persistent struggle with transnational capitalism within the global seaport industry.

The strike broke out on 1 September 2013 at Yantian International Containers Port (YICP), the world’s biggest single container handling dock. The action at such a high profile port attracted substantial attention for its noticeable impact on the regional and global cargo supply chain. As the dock’s operations were actually controlled by Hutchison Port Holdings (HPH), a Hong Kong based TNC and one of the major players in the global port industry, one can speculate whether Yantian dockers were inspired by their counterparts who launched a similar action at the HPH port in neighbouring Hong Kong a few months earlier. However, there is little evidence that the two strikes were linked, as workers in these two ports were in two completely different systems, including the labour market, the industrial relations climate and legal environment. Hong Kong dockers’ 40-day dispute was a classic industrial conflict featuring independent unions that led the strike and collective bargaining from the beginning to the end. In contrast, the Yantian strike was a spontaneous dispute as the official union had nothing to do with the initiate or lead of the stoppage.

Striking workers usually need to have justifications for their behaviours. To this end, YICT workers’ demand for a 2–3,000 yuan pay rise was linked with discontent over the company’s changes on housing benefits and education subsidies, something that would see their actual income being reduced. With a few agitators starting the initial action on their own, the strike was not an organized dispute and no union officials were aware of it in the beginning, nor did any striking workers ask the union to step in. At the beginning it was a group of 200 or so crane operators who stopped working, which soon spread to the majority of the workforce who also supported the demands for pay rises. Without the participation of the workplace union, these workers were able to stand together in their collective demands, with many of them having experienced a previous spontaneous strike in 2007. As with many ad hoc actions of this sort, workers who are not organized react to oppressive conditions in the only ways open to them as individuals.

Facing the Chinese authority’s strict control over “collective incidents”, YICT workers’ courage is worth mentioning. But their self-mobilization capacity reflected the strength of dock workers’ sense of community and occupational culture based on long-observed higher degrees of emotional involvement in work tasks that are often dangerous, physical and skilled. In a few hours, the strike quickly spread to the whole port and the entire on-site operation was halted. HPH was hit by this unprecedented stoppage and the pressure from the market loss forced the company to carefully consider the workers’ demands, leading to the final settlement that offered workers about 20% pay rise.

Despite being an unorganized collective action, the 2013 Yantian strike quickly drew people’s attention because of the role of the YICT workplace union. Within a few hours of the stoppage, the union was asked by management to quickly jump in and workers were persuaded to accept the union as an official representative body at the negotiation table. As an union official said, in fact Yantian 2013 strike workers ‘didn’t want to stand out by themselves as they might worry about their job security …. So by the end they agreed the union could represent them to negotiate.’ With workers needing a formal leadership so that somebody could help them to manage the discontent, the union mediated between the management and workers while the final deal was sealed after few rounds of intensive talks. The contribution of the YICT demonstrates how union intervention can help to institutionalise conflict. As a result, the collective bargaining process was eventually materialized when both the management and workers accepted union to take an active role.

Unfortunately this collective bargaining process was not institutionalized, and after the strike the union could only continue its traditional role as a transmission belt. Hence the strike really embarrassed the ACFTU who had regarded the YICT union as an exemplary model after the 2007 direct election that established the first union in this port. Much propagandised by the ACFTU and authorities, the YICT union had become a shining star of union reform for having had two direct elections and six consecutive wage collective consultations, as well as ‘comprehensive’ workplace representation. It seemed that YICT workers had benefited from continuous pay rise as a result of the union reform and ‘harmonious’ industrial relations, and nobody predicted another strike would happen just before the 7th collective wage consultation to be held in October 2013. Apparently the union reform at YICT was not successful because consultation could not replace negotiation. Without an institutionalized collective bargaining system, workers’ views would not be properly represented through a collective consultation framework, and their discontent would not necessarily be channelled through negotiations. Such tensions were exemplified by the 2013 strike in this market-leading port within the global supply chain.
Credibility: UP DOWN 0

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