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Strike at Honda plant the latest sign of labor unrest in China

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 12, 2010; A07

BEIJING -- 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 factory that makes locks and keys for Honda Motors staged an unusual march through the city streets Friday morning, media reports and labor activists said.

The workers walked off the job Wednesday, demanding more pay and the right to elect their own union representatives. That was a direct affront to the country's official union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions.

Two 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 the job in Shanghai's Pudong district.

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

Economists, labor experts and activists said that there are many more strikes and work stoppages across China, but that the unrest largely unreported in the 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 walkouts that began in May and shut down three Honda Motors plants, prompting Honda's Japanese managers eventually to offer workers a wage increase of more than 20 percent. Workers in other sectors became emboldened by that strike's success, analysts said.

But the underlying causes, they said, are China's growing income gap and mounting frustration among younger, 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."

Also significant, according to Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for the China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based advocacy group, is that workers have as a central demand the right to elect their union representatives. That is 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 grievances to management, other than through strikes.

The Beijing government has 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.

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