China’s “factory girls” have grown up—and are going on strike

GUANGZHOU, China—Yang Liyan, a 30-year-old migrant worker, says she has cried twice in the past year. Once was when she was having her first meal in jail, and again after she was released and talking to her co-workers about her ordeal over dinner.

Yang was waiting for a scheduled meeting with the management of the Xinsheng Shoe Factory in the industrial metropolis of Guangzhou on Nov. 3, 2014, when she was thrown into the back of a police van. A total of 14 workers, including Yang and several other women, had gathered on behalf of 114 co-workers to fight for the severance pay they said they were owed after a three-month strike. They were arrested for “sabotaging production and business operations” (破坏生产经营), and in Yang’s case, jailed for 25 days.

When the police asked her to sign her name on paperwork calling her a suspect, Yang said she refused: “I’m not a criminal’, I told them.”

Female factory workers have often been seen in China as a group who are docile, vulnerable and easy to manage. They still make on average about 75% (pdf, link in Chinese) of what their male counterparts earn.

Leslie Chang, in her acclaimed 2008 book Factory Girls, described women who left home as teenagers, and sometimes timidly coped with their bosses, disappointing jobs and dehumanizing work conditions. One such woman “quit the Yue Yuen factory, walking off the line without permission, and without the back pay that the company owned her.”

Recently, things have started to change. Female workers in China’s factories have become more willing to step up for their own rights, and those of others. They are representing other workers, giving motivational speeches and negotiating with bosses, said Peng Jiayong, a labor activist who helped organize the Xinsheng factory strike. “Female workers are quite good at socializing and initiating people,” he said.

Four days after being released, Yang threw herself back into the battle, encouraging workers to strike again. Victory came a week later, when management at the factory offered each worker a severance deal worth about 12,000 yuan (US $1,920), about 60% of the full amount they were owed.

“My colleagues called me Mu Guiying,”said Yang, referring to a steadfast female figure in a famous Chinese legend, “because I am a woman who dares to stand up and fight for our own rights.” The fight was not really about money, Yang said. “All I’m fighting for is the respect from my boss who used to look down on us,” Yang said.

China’s changing labor force

Strikes and labor unrest are increasing across China, thanks to a slowing economy that has left factory owners sometimes unable to pay back wages, a shrinking labor pool that’s growing more aware of its worth, and organization through social media. While official workers’ unions exist in many factories and factory towns, they are often closely allied with management, leaving those on the factory floor to agitate for better wages and conditions.

And women are playing a great part in that unrest, in part because the number of female workers has surpassed men in recent years in some industries. “Women are more likely to be employed in the kind of low-paid jobs in manufacturing, service industries, etc., that see more labor disputes,” said Geoffrey Crothall, communications director of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based outreach organization that promotes the rights of workers in China.

Women represent 53.2% (link in Chinese) of the newest generation of workers migrating from rural areas to Shenzhen, a manufacturing city in China’s Pearl River delta, according to a recent study by Shenzhen University and official trade union of Shenzhen. That’s up from 37.9% in the previous generation of Shenzhen workers, the study said.

WORKER STRIKES

A recent report (pdf) by China Labor Bulletin shows that manufacturing factory workers have carried out 40% of the 1,171 strikes and protests in China from June, 2011 to the end of 2013—more than any other industry. Because such factories have more female workers and more labor disputes, “It is just a natural process that women should represent other women workers,” said Crothall.

But the strikes are also spreading out of traditional manufacturing. Female sanitation workers led a two-week strike at Guangzou’s Higher Education Mega Center last September for severance pay, eventually winning nearly $500 per year in service. About 800 women workers staged a sit-in at a paper mill in Jiangsu in October after a promised pay raise was rescinded, and dozens went on strike in 2013 at Guangzhou’s University of Chinese Medicine.

female worker-5
Workers at the First Affiliated Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine on a 2013 strike for higher pay. (Provided by the Panyu Migrant Worker Center)

The role of labor rights groups

Local non-government organizations who support worker rights have also contributed a lot to the trend. There are about 30 such NGOs operating in southern China, which hold workshops to teach workers about their rights, show them how to organize labor strikes, and connect them with lawyers who can help their cases.

“Female worker leaders here are courageous, optimistic and have a strong sense of responsibility and consciousness of law,” said a representative from a labor rights NGO in Qingdao, Shandong Province, who didn’t want to be identified by name. Compared with men, women are born with more empathy, so that they can speak in a more sensitive way, she said, and they are more tolerant of difficulty and adversity, she said.

A managing director from an NGO that focuses on helping female workers in Guangzhou, who asked that her name not be used, invited reporters to a training session the group holds regularly on how to negotiate with factories. Former female worker leaders were invited to share their experiences with a group of ten women who were interested in becoming organizers at the NGO’s head office.

“I was so scared that I was shaking all over before I entered the negotiation room,” a middle-aged female shoe factory worker told the group during the session. “But after taking the trainings, I just felt I’m not that afraid of my boss anymore.” The group edited a handbook on women workers’ rights. The factory workers, who mostly only had a primary school education, were responsible for explaining the fancy words in the handbook so everyone could understand it.

The average female worker who is leading strikes is aged 30 to 40, and the majority of them are married, said Zeng Feiyang, the director of another NGO in Guangzhou, the Panyu Migrant Workers Center, which provides legal aid for workers. These women have more life experience, so they are more capable of getting people organized, Zeng said.

Tang Qinghong, a 37-year old worker representative at the Lide Shoe Factory in Guangzhou, said she has changed a lot since last August, when she started organizing strikes for unpaid overtime, social insurance (a government-administered pension program that employers pay into) and holiday pay. She used to obey managers without question and was afraid of the administrative staff. But now she has realized that “the managers are afraid of us workers” because their awareness of labor rights made them braver.

One of Tang’s colleagues, who goes by the nickname “Matchmaker,” said she has led hundreds of colleagues to protest at the factory, but that she had to overcome her initial fear first. Here’s a scene from inside the factory this past winter:

Consequences for workers who speak up

As female workers become more vocal about injustice on the job, they have also become more vulnerable during and after demonstrations. At another factory in Guangzhou, the Sumida Electronic Factory, workers started demonstrating for higher pay and social insurance in September, 2013, organizing their own union because the existing one was dominated by factory management. After more than a year of fighting, management agreed to give them social insurance and a democratically-elected union.

But the factory has also fired six protest leaders, and the remaining three were assigned to another plant where they had no work to do, meaning they earn no overtime. Liang Zhengxian, 39, from Guizhou Province, is one of the representatives who was reassigned. Every weekday, she said, she sat in the same room, isolated from other factory workers under the surveillance of a hidden camera. Her salary per month shrank from 3,000 yuan (US $480) to 1,500 yuan (US $240), because she used to earn bonuses.

After six months, Liang went to argue about her situation with some of the administrative staff. A human resources manager pulled her out of the office by force, leaving Liang with an injured ankle. Still, Liang says she does not want to quit her job. “Now I have already stepped forward as the leader, no matter how regretful I am, I will carry on with the fight,” she said. “I have no choice but move forward.” The owner of the factory, Chen Manhong, hung up when a reporter called and asked him about Liang’s situation.

Managers from other factories involved in these workers’ movements have been similarly difficult to reach. The phone at the Lide Shoe Factory’s management office was never answered. The Xinsheng Shoe Factory is closed. The official trade unions of Guangdong province and Dongguan city asked us to fax our inquiries to them, and did not respond to the faxes.

After Yang’s detention, and the Xinsheng Shoe Factory’s close, she said she was tired of the factory life. “I just want to go back home” and spend Chinese New Year there, she said in January. By early March, though, she was back at work in the manufacturing industry, this time in Shenzhen. “What else can I do if I don’t work in a factory?” she said.

The authors were embedded for six weeks at the Panyu Migrant Workers Center, a labor rights NGO in Guangdong Province, as part of an internship program set up by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of The University of Hong Kong.

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