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In China, unrest spreads as more workers rally

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010;

BEIJING -- A series of labor strikes continued to spread Friday across parts of China, as newly emboldened workers pressed for higher wages and better conditions, posing a fresh challenge to the government and the country's only officially sanctioned union.

In Zhangshan, in southeastern China, about 1,700 workers at a Honda Lock factory, which makes locks and keys for Honda Motors, staged an unusual march through the city streets Friday morning, according to media reports and labor activists. The workers walked off the job Wednesday, demanding more pay and the right to elect their own union representatives -- a direct affront to China's official union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions.

Two other Honda plants in Guangdong province remain idle because of work stoppages.

Meanwhile, the unrest spread to China's other main industrial base in the Yangtze River Delta, when 2,000 workers at a Taiwanese computer parts plant walked off their jobs in Shanghai's Pudong district.

In Kunshan city, in Jiangsu, just outside Shanghai, workers striking at a Taiwanese-owned rubber factory earlier this week clashed with police who tried to break up their protest. Workers this week also walked off the job at a Japanese industrial sewing machine plant in Xian and at a Taiwanese sporting goods factory in Jiujiang, in Jiangxi province.

Various economists, labor experts and activists said there were many more strikes and work stoppages rolling across China, but the unrest remained largely unreported in the country's strictly controlled state-run media.

"It's everywhere. And all kinds of enterprises," said Xu Xiaonian, an economics and finance professor at the China Europe International Business School. "It's not confined to multinationals and joint ventures. And not just the South -- everywhere."

Analysts said the strikes were in many ways copycat versions of earlier walkouts that began in May and shut down three Honda Motors plants, prompting Honda's Japanese managers to eventually offer workers a wage increase of more than 20 percent. Workers in other sectors became more emboldened by the success of that strike, analysts said.

But the underlying causes, they said, were China's growing income gap and mounting frustration by a younger generation of urbanized workers that their wages have stayed relatively meager even as prices all around them -- particularly for housing -- have soared.

"Their money is worthless because property prices keep rising," said Andy Xie, a Shanghai-based economist. "We're seeing this social tension building up." He added, "Every period of social instability in China has been driven by inflation."

Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for the China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based advocacy group, said the unrest "reflects accumulated pressure that's been building up for quite a long time. Wages have been kept low for many years."

There have been strikes and protests before in China, but Crothall said the difference now is that the workers seem far better organized at the factory level, and they seem far more willing to make their grievances public without concern about retaliation from their managers. "What's significant about these strikes is there seems to be no fear," he said.

Also significant, Crothall and other said, is that workers have made one of their central demands the right to elect their own union representatives, a rebuke of the official union that ostensibly represents workers in China but in reality has long acted as a partner of factory managers and local government officials to ensure labor peace.

Without a real union standing up for worker rights, the analysts said, no mechanism exists in China for employees to bring their grievances to management, other than through strikes.

The government in Beijing has so far responded to the unrest by encouraging local governments to increase the minimum wage in their areas. At least 14 provinces and regions have raised minimum wages this year as much as 20 percent.

But the higher minimum wage payments, and the salary increases offered as a result of the strikes, have led some businessmen and economists to predict that many foreign firms could decide to leave China for lower-wage countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam.

"We have to wait and see how much the multinationals can absorb in terms of higher wages," said Xu , the economics professor.

Some economists, however, have said that foreign firms might also decide to move their China operations away from the more affluent coastal regions to areas inland and farther west in the country, where they could still pay lower wages. Such a shift would help bring development to those often overlooked areas, they said.

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