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Short-Lived Strike Reflects Strength of Japan-China Ties

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 26, 2005; Page A01

SHENZHEN, China, April 25 -- On the face of it, the 10,000 fired-up workers at Uniden Electronic Products seemed to have a lot going for them when they went on strike.

Their main demand, the formation of a union, had long been guaranteed in China's labor law. And Uniden's Japanese ownership, they reckoned, had little reason to expect sympathy in China during an angry crisis between Tokyo and Beijing. Moreover, the days had passed when another batch of eager workers could easily be found; the assembly plants that form an endless expanse here in the Pearl River Delta had started to experience a shortage of workers.


Hai Li, 24, a five-year veteran at the Uniden plant in Shenzhen, is hopeful a trade union will be allowed soon. (Edward Cody -- The Washington Post)

But by Saturday, eight days after the strike began, Uniden started humming again with a full complement of 10,600 young men and women in pastel uniforms, their dexterous hands busily assembling cordless phones for export to Wal-Mart stores and other destinations. Several strike leaders had disappeared, probably to jail cells, their frightened colleagues said. Pressure from local government officials, backed by police, had forced the employees back to the assembly line, once again deferring their dream of a worker-run union.

"The Japanese investors seem very influential," said a young woman who participated in the strike and reluctantly returned to work. "The government also listens to them," she added, declining to give her name for fear of retribution. "Some labor officials told us we had to cooperate or else the investors might withdraw and move to other places to invest, and we would all get thrown out of work."

The short-lived walkout at Uniden put on display the powerful economic forces at work in relations between Japan and China despite a tense diplomatic feud over Japan's World War II legacy and a strategic clash in the East China Sea north of Taiwan. Chinese and Japanese officials estimate that their countries did $170 billion in trade last year. More than a million Chinese have found employment in factories owned by Japanese, who have invested $65 billion in China over the past two decades.

The swift quashing of Uniden's labor movement also illustrated the cooperation between China's Communist government and foreign and local capitalists who rely on docile young workers to minimize production costs and maximize profits. Workers interviewed in streets around the Uniden complex said dozens of police cars pulled up immediately when strike leaders organized a protest last Wednesday and tried to march outside the factory compound. Police hit agitators with batons to break up the demonstration, they said.

"Some workers shouted 'traitor' and accused the police of helping the Japanese," said Shen Xianping, 22, who came to Shenzhen from rural Hunan province to work at Uniden five years ago. "There were some minor scuffles and, shortly after that, the policemen backed away and just blocked the entrance. So we staged a sit-in."

In local jurisdictions where tax revenue and reputations depend on flourishing foreign investment, such cooperation has become the norm. Despite the governing party's origins as a champion for peasants and workers, the government now accepts the migration of millions of young Chinese who leave rural homes in search of low-paid work in assembly plants in Shenzhen and elsewhere.

A young party member in Beijing, asked recently about the irony, said that party officials and capitalists naturally work together because they are both leaders in contemporary Chinese society. As a result, he said, growing numbers of people are leading more prosperous lives, particularly in big cities.

Labor relations have been tense at Uniden since operations began here in 1987. At least four brief strikes have been reported. The latest was precipitated by the firing of Chen Yongshun, a would-be labor leader who worked in the wiring department. He was escorted off the premises April 15 after several months of agitating for a union, workers said.

About 3,000 workers walked off the job in protest the next day. By April 18, the strike had grown to include all but 600 workers, according to accounts from a number of them. Their demands had expanded to include better shower and restroom facilities, less overtime and an end to what the workers described as abuse from their foremen.

"They scream at us, 'Go to hell' and 'You pig,' " said Jia Yan, 20, a Henan province native who started work here in January. "The stress level is very high."

Chen had been active since a strike in December, which workers said was resolved by a pay raise and promises from management that they would be allowed to form a labor union by this July. The increase brought base pay to about $58 a month, workers said, but with ample overtime, most bring in about $120 a month.

A new manager assigned by Tokyo headquarters earlier this month, however, reneged on the union promise, along with several other pledges dealing with overtime and dormitory conditions, workers said. He also took a harder-line attitude than that of his predecessor, they said.


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