#ISS14: The Long March of Chinese Labour

The Long March of Chinese Labour – workers organising inside China.

Speaker: Zhang Lingji, China Labour Bulletin.

Date: Tuesday 8th July, 2014.


Suggested Reading



“The Long March of Chinese Labour”

by Zhang Lingji


I am very glad to have this opportunity to introduce the labour movement in China. I am Zhang Lingji from China Labour Bulletin. I know that a lot of you come from trade unions around the world. Unfortunately, this is not the case in China, because right now, we don’t have independent trade unions in China. But, of course, It doesn’t mean we don’t have a trade union movement.

China Labour Bulletin is a Hong Kong based non-governmental organization. China labour bulletin was founded in 1994 and at present we ha have two main programs – Collective bargaining and labour rights litigation. Both of these programs are specifically designed to promote workers’ movement in China.

Today, I am going to talk about the emergence and growth of independent workers’ organization and the worker-led collective bargaining on the factory floor.


Firstly, I will refer to several cases that have drew wide attention around the world, including some being considered the milestones in the efforts of establishing collective bargaining in China.

Secondly, I will try to analyze the attitude of the official trade union toward worker’s collective actions and that of the local government.

After that, I will point out the vital roles played by labour NGOs and social media in promoting worker’s rights and the development of collective bargaining.

Although China has become the second largest economy in the world in the era of globalization, China’s workers have been living under incomparable low level of economic and social standards. Therefore, for a long time, Chinese workers had been seen as victims of repression and exploitation since the economic reform. However, the situation has changed. Chinese workers have begun to claim their rights on their own and become labour activists who are capable of fighting back. Notably, their fight has been achieving success.

From the beginning of June 2011 to the end of December 2013, CLB’s strike map recorded 470 strikes and protests by factory workers across the country. This represented 40 percent of the 1,171 total number worker protests recorded across all sectors during that period. The labour unrest covered almost every province and region and generally concentrated in the coastal provinces where economy is relatively more developed. As we can all see on this map, Guangdong has the biggest portion in the chart, followed by Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shandong.

Now I am going to introduce some collective cases this is very important in the establishing of collective bargaining in China. Mainly happened in Guangdong province.

Milestone cases in the establishment of collective bargaining

Honda auto parts factory strike

On 31 May 2010, hundreds of workers went on strike at a Honda auto parts factory in Foshan, Guangdong province, in southern China. Workers claimed that their salaries were so low that they could not even make a living. The production line workers earned about 1500 Yuan per month, and after paying social security contributions and other bills, nothing has left. So they went to a strike. Just a day later, the picture below appeared on the internet.

china union
You can see that the uniformed workers on the right side were confronting the uniformed guys wearing yellow caps. These capped guys are not managers, not government officials, and they are not even plain clothes police officers! Actually, they were sent by the local trade union to force the strikers back to work. So, they are trade union officials!

But, the workers were determined and united. Even though the government and the union asked them to go back to work, they did not back down, and stayed out on strike. The strike resulted in suspension of operations at all. For the first time the strike was widely covered by domestic and international media. Eventually, the CEO of the Guangzhou Automobile Group, one of the plant’s investors, and several famous scholars stepped in and help settled a deal: a 35 percent pay increase.

It is believed that Honda lost 3 billion yuan in sales as a result of this strike. And this is not the end of the story. After the strike ended in Foshan Nanhai factory, similar protests happened in other Honda parts factories, and the strike continued.

The importance of Honda strike is that, the case set a benchmark for labour activism in China. Not like before, employers, local governments and crucially the official trade union, have to listen to workers and take workers’ grievances seriously. So, it is clear that Chinese workers have stopped being victim of labour rights violations and exploitation. Instead, they have begun to stand up and get organized. The repression and intimidation of the management and the government cannot stop workers form claiming better pay, social benefits and working conditions.

Although the Honda strike was ground-breaking in the history of labour activism, if we look back at this case today when collective bargaining is widely adopted by workers as a mechanism to solve grievances, we may find that the Honda case is a bit dated—the final settlement of pay raise is not generated by workers and their representatives or the Honda trade union but with the intervention of outsider—scholars, lawyers, the government.

During the Honda strike, workers also asked to reorganise the enterprise trade union. It did happen after strike. However, three years later, in March 2013, the Honda workers went on another strike because of the failure of their union to negotiate with the management on a new wage adjustment scheme. Workers said the union did not communicate adequately with grassroots workers, and the union’s position is just the same with the company’s, so they had to bypass the union and go on a strike to protect their own rights.

Citizen watch strike and collective bargaining

On 17 October 2011, nearly 1,000 workers at Astar Precision Watch factory, a subsidiary of the Citizen Watch Corporation in Shenzhen began a two-week strike. The strike was sparked by a change in the salary calculation method from piece-rate to a time-based system, announced on 16 October. One of the main issues in this strike is that dating back to the years between 2005 and 2010, the management did not include the employees’ daily 40 minute break as part of their normal working hours and refused to pay overtime until employees had made up the “lost” 40 minutes. Workers did not get a satisfactory response from the management at the beginning of the strike. So they consulted Guangdong Laowei law firm during the strike, the Astar workers knew of its expertise in collective bargaining. Workers called Laowei again and asked for their guidance.

Ten elected worker representatives from Astar’s factory went to the law firm with 584 signatures from other workers, seeking Laowei’s support and possible intervention in the dispute. Laowei suggested that the most effective method was to continue negotiations with management, which would restore order much more quickly, and also lower the net cost for the factory, the courts, and society.

Laowei delivered a formal request to Astar management to restart negotiations and to conduct collective bargaining talks in accordance with the regulations on labor relations of Shenzhen. The factory agreed to talk. After two rounds of negotiation, after weighed the pros and cons, the management offered to pay 70 percent of the 40 minutes per day overtime. The settlement cover not only the 584 workers formally represented in the talks but the entire workforce. The representatives accepted this offer and promised to try to make up the losses of the factory during the strike.

The collective agreement was signed, but this was not the end of the story. The cooperation between Astar management and labour continued. Laowei helped establish a “labour and management coordination committee” at the factory by the end of November. The committee was to function as a permanent platform for the management and labour to address worker complaints and other main concerns in a timely manner. A worker who had been active in the collective bargaining sessions was appointed as the worker representative on the committee. The Citizen case attracted a lot of media attention in China at the time and was seen as a major milestone in the development of collective bargaining in China. For the first time, organized workers actively engaged legal professionals in the resolving of a labor dispute.

The strike, prompted by management’s failure to satisfy workers’ demands, impacted both parties, as well as society, and was reported in many media outlets.

The struggle of workers in the Honda case Citizen watch case indicated that workers’ organizational ability has enhanced through organizing strike and negotiation with the employer. It also raised another question – where is the union and what is the part of the union in resolving workers’ grievances? To answer this question, now we come to another two cases.

Hitachi’s initiative of forming an enterprise trade union

Since 2011, some jewellery factories in Panyu District, Guangzhou city had been engaged in a series of collective actions to demand the payment of social insurance premiums, which the employer did not pay according to the law for years. Two of the most influential cases are the Hengbao and the Gaoya.

Both cases got workers their social security contributions paid, but there are consequences. The worker representatives of Hengbao was arrested and charged for gathering workers illegal custody the manager. But he was finally released on bail and the charge was withdrawn. In the Gaoya case, after the company agreed to pay a majority of workers social security, 19 workers from the same department kept asking for the payment of the rest. The workers’ leader was constantly retaliated by the management, so they decided to strike. Then the factory fired all of them after issuing 3 warnings demanding them going back to work. The factory refused to negotiate after that, so the workers brought the case to arbitration.

Their success of Hengbao and Gaoya at the beginning has encouraged workers from nearby factories in the same industrial area to claim for their rights and interests. In the summer of 2013, 1,500 workers from Hitachi, a Japanese owned electronics factory, initially get organized and demanded that the company start paying their long overdue social insurance premiums. And they succeeded. Although the owner agreed to pay workers’ social insurance as required by law, the management begun to keep close eyes on workers representatives at workplace. Zhu Xiaomei was the main target of management reprisals. In August of 2013, just a few months after Zhu and her colleague’s success, the company reassigned her from a management position to a dark corner in the archive room and even put a surveillance camera above her desk. In order to protect themselves from such reprisal, as well as ensure the company respects their rights in the long run, Zhu and her colleagues lobbied to form a trade union at the factory. This got management so worried that even though they did agree in early January 2014 to the setting up of a union, they made absolutely sure Zhu was not around to run it. She was fired on 14 January 2014 for alleged violations of company rules. Zhu Xiaomei said afterwards:

“The factory is afraid that I will be elected as the chairwoman of the union. By then I would be protected by the Trade Union Law but they are determined to kick me out before that.”

Zhu Xiaomei’s concern was indicated by what happened next. Zhu Xiaomei continued to work with her colleagues to push for free and fair trade union elections at the factory. The Hitachi started the process of union election. At the begining, it was totally a mess, workers have been complaining it. Zhu Xiaomei kept asking the district federation to follow the process and step in and instruct the factory how to organize an election.

As for Zhu herself, she refused to give in even after she was sacked. Now Zhu Xiao is demanding justice from the court.

What I want to say about this case is that not long ago, few workers in China would have thought that forming a trade union was the answer to their problems. Workers had had little interest, and even less faith, in the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). And now they began to realize the importance of the union to collective bargaining and protect themselves from management retaliation.

The fight of Walmart Changde store union

Striking Chinese Walmart workers outside their shop in Changde

Striking Chinese Walmart workers outside their shop in Changde

The fourth case I want to talk about is the Walmart Changde store case. What makes this case different from the cases introduced above is that, the Changde Walwart has an functioning union and the union stand up on behalf the workers this time.

Walmart announced the closure of its Changde store in early March, offering workers only two options– relocate to another Walmart store in China or accept what they considered to be a substandard severance package. The workers complained that neither the two-week notice period nor the amount of compensation was in accordance with China’s labour laws. Huang Xingguo, the store’s trade union chairperson led the workers in the negotiation and the subsequent protest.

”It’s a very unusual and encouraging sign that a store union chairman would take the initiative and take such a strong stand in defence of his members’ interests.”

This is historic in China’s labour movement. The struggle of Walmart workers also received support from the international trade union UNI.

Of course, the struggle of workers in this case drew the attention of media both at home and international. Southern Weekend described the struggle of Walmart workers as Battle of “the incredible trade union” against Walmart.

Based on the description of collective actions of Chinese workers we may easily find that important changes have come about. Firstly, Chinese workers are not afraid any more. Retaliation from the management cannot stop them from claiming their rights. Secondly, workers have become more and more organized. Workers and their representatives have begun to realize the importance of trade union to protect their rights. Thirdly, collective actions, namely collective bargaining are more and more employed to protect them from exploitation.

The role of local government, ACFTU, civil society and media

As we have discussed in the above cases, workers’ strikes and protests do not occur in isolation. The outbreak, progress and resolution of labour disputes is influenced by local governments, the ACFTU, the media and civil society organizations, such as labour rights groups.

This part examines the response of local governments to worker protests, the action or inaction of the official trade union, and the role of civil society in pushing for change.

The response of local governments to worker protests

The extent to which local governments intervene in labour disputes and nature of their intervention is different according to the relationship between the workers and the government, the level of disruption caused by the workers’ protest, and the overall social and economic goals of the local government concerned.

In department or sectors with public nature, where protests are generated by government policies or directives such as teacher and taxi drivers, local government is more likely to respond.

In privately and foreign-owned factories, local governments generally take a more neutral stance. Government officials, especially those in Guangdong, who have decades of experience in dealing with labour disputes, understand that factory worker protests originate in conflicts between labour and management, so it is best to let the two parties concerned to work the problem out. Local governments will either take a completely hands-off approach or more likely intervene in an attempt to put pressure on both labour and management to make concessions and reach a negotiated settlement.

In disputes related to factory relocations, mergers or closures, local government officials usually try to intervene and mediate a settlement before the factory actually closes down. When they feel it is necessary, local governments also deploy riot police and using strong-arm tactics in labour disputes. In cases where workers block roads, bridges, or take any action that is considered to “disrupt social order” (??????), local governments are more likely to deploy riot police and use strong-arm tactics.

This basically the case we have discussed above.

The role of the trade union

When we talking about labour movement in China, the ACFTU is inevitably involved in the discussion. As the only legally-mandated trade union, of course ACFTU was aware of the increasing number of worker protests as well as its own inability to play a constructive role in resolving them. The ACFTU has for a very long time ignored the fundamental problems in the face—–its job is to protect workers’ rights by engaging collective bargaining. But, at present maybe we are asking too much. As we can see from the influential strikes and labour protest discussed above, the ACFTU lacks the tools and the strategies needed to timely and effectively respond to workers’ initiatives and demands.

However, some regional trade union federations have at least made some attempts to engage with workers and adopt more innovative solutions to long-standing problems, especially the ACFTU in Guangdong province, where labour unrest accounted for 57% of the total in China.

While workers understood the need for solidarity in their collective disputes with management, the official trade union was either entirely absent from the scene or took sides with management. But in the last few years, a small but significant number of workers have decided not to ignore the union but rather to demand more of it. On 28 February 2013, for example, a group of workers at the Ohms Electronics factory in Shenzhen posted a notice at the factory gate demanding the ouster of their trade union chairman. In May 2012, Ohms held its first direct union election. The election came about after a strike in March. During that strike, in addition to higher wages and improved benefits, the workers demanded new union elections. The election was organized with the help of the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions and was seen as a showcase of the federation’s democratic reforms. Zhao Shaobo, a management-level employee was elected as the union president. The elections received considerable press coverage both inside and outside China.

And Ohms workers eventually found that the union was reluctant to stand up to the management, and eventually, after Zhao allegedly sided with management in two employment contract disputes, the workers decided to ouster him.

After the election, the Shenzhen ACFTU announced a plan of having democratic trade union elections at another 163 enterprises in the city. However, there is little evidence these elections actually took place.

While in Ohms case, democratic election of union does not necessarily mean a real union, the Federation of Trade Unions did intervene on a few occasions in other cases.

The Guangzhou ACFTU openly expressed its support to workers in Hengbao and Gaoya, two jewellery factories, International Paper case and sanitation workers on strike. In Zhu Xiaomei’s case mentioned above, the Panyu district ACFTU even assigned a lawyer for her, after she was fired for attempt to establish a union.

Outside of Guangdong, the only example of union intervention occurred in the Yanlian dispute over equal pay. When the workers complained to the local and provincial trade unions, the Shaanxi provincial federation set up a working group to investigate and criticised the company for forcing the workers to sign up as agency employees.

The role of labour rights groups in Guangdong

The general passivity of official trade union in promoting and defending workers’ rights has created space for created a space for China’s non-governmental labour organizations. Labour rights NGOs become a key part in bringing workers and the union closer together and help workers get organized and maintain solidarity.

At the beginning, Labour NGOs have traditionally offered practical support to migrant workers. Their main work effort revolved around legal support for workers whose rights had been violated and/or who had been injured at work. Through lectures, workshops and publications, labour NGOs provided migrant workers with information about their rights under the law, occupational health and safety, job search techniques, tips for urban living and health issues for women workers etc. When resources allowed, some organisations also provided workers with simple vocational skills training. An important element of their work was organizing cultural and recreational activities that helped bring workers from different regions of China and different factories closer together – not just in the same room but towards a common end.

But, this is not enough. While this approach may have been appropriate in the 2000s, the development of the workers’ movement in China over the last few years has meant that labour groups have had to adapt in order to keep pace with the new collective demands of workers. In collective cases mentioned above, labour NGOs guided workers towards a settlement through collective bargaining with management. Besides, since a lot workers lack the skills and strategies at the beginning of and different stage of collective actions, labour NGOs also provide training sessions and strategic advice during the whole process, by which workers to create stronger solidarity, enhancing their organizational ability and eventually capable of building strong trade unions.

Out of the pioneers taking a collective approach is the Panyu Service Centre for Migrant Workers, Sunflower Women Worker’s Center, Spring Wind Labour Dispute Service Centre in Shenzhen. Although not strictly a labour NGO, another important player in the development of collective bargaining in China is the Guangdong Laowei Law Firm. Laowei has now developed into the country’s leading labour rights law firm, which provides expert advice and representation for workers. Now Laowei has acted as an advisor for the rest three NGOs in collective disputes.

The labour organizing and social media

From the cases talked about above, we may easily find that strikes and protests are getting greater public attention. One of the reasons is that, the new generation of Chinese workers is closely connected to the internet; social media has rooted in their daily life. In this context, strikes and protests get on to social media at the beginning of the event. Cheap android smart phones with similar function now is popular even in the rural country side. It has enabled workers to post photos and video of their action onto the Internet in no time.

Besides, the ability of workers to organize strikes and protests was enhanced considerably by the rapid development of social media and messaging platforms such Weibo, WeChat and QQ.

Social media has also created an online platform for workers, labour lawyers, labour NGOs and journalist. They can exchange their ideas, information and strategy about cases and therefore support each other if there is a need.

Of these social media tools, Sina Weibo is particularly important to China’s labour movement. Sina weibo has the largest number of registered users in China although only 10 percent of them are active. The majority of factory workers may not be active on Weibo, but they can at least use it to keep in touch with their colleagues and stay up to date with the latest developments in the strike or dispute at their factory. Mobile social media tools can not only help active worker representative to organize protests, but also ensure that workers’ actions come to the attention of the public, the traditional media and local government officials.

When protests like the above are posted on Weibo, workers in other parts of China learn about the causes, the demands and actions taken. These workers can then use that knowledge to mobilise their own co-workers to take similar action.

In order to further bolster the sustainability of the workers’ movement, in October 2013, the Centre, in collaboration with other labour groups, devised and published a ground-breaking Code of Collective Bargaining (????????), designed to give employers and employees a practical guide to collective bargaining and provide a possible template for collective bargaining legislation in the future. The 65-article Code is based entirely on the first-hand, practical experience of workers and labour organizations in Guangdong, and acts as a step-by-step guide to initiating, preparing for, conducting and concluding collective bargaining in the workplace as well as supervising the implementation of the resulting agreement.

Last September, China Labour Bulletin held a training session on union and collective bargaining for workers and labour rights NGO staff. In the training, the participants discussed a series of important issues regarding the union:

What a union should be, how the relation of workers with the ACFTU should be, why workers should get ACFTU involved in the labour unrest and push the ACFTU to change its strategy and meet the demands of workers to conduct collective bargaining.

With such discussion, the participants began to realize that worker representatives and labour activists should find their future in the union. They can either become professional trade unionists or evolve into education institution for the unions. And every effort should be made to engage ACFTU in the labour movement and transform the ACFTU into a real trade union.


To summarize, workers in China are no longer the passive victims of repression and exploitation. Instead, they have taken the fate into their own hands. While strikes and protests are taken by workers to claim their economic and social rights, collective barraging has been employed by more and more workers and employers as effective mechanism to solve their dispute. It is beneficial to both sides. Workers in Guangdong Province, especially workers in Guangzhou have gained tangible success.

In private and foreign factories, local governments generally take a more neutral stance. Government officials, especially those in Guangdong, realize that it is best to let the two parties concerned to solve the dispute themselves. The government is also not hesitated to use strong-arm tactics when there is risk of disturbing social order.

The ACFTU is still ignoring the fundamental problems in the face. While in general, it lacks the tools and the strategies needed to response to workers’ initiatives and is out of touch with the realities of labour relations in China today. However, a small number of provincial unions, namely the Guangdong union have already made attempts to engage with workers’ collective actions. Anyway, there is still a long way to go for the ACFTU to become a genuine union as it should be.

Labour rights groups are vital in the development of collective bargaining in China. While the ACFTU has lost its connection with workers, labour rights NGOs in Guangdong has stepped into the vacuum and to some extent play the part of the union. By conducting collective bargaining training sessions and providing strategic advice for workers in collective actions on the ground and disseminating the results and lessons learned to a wider audience.

The rapid development of social media in China over the last three years has given workers and civil society organisations a much broader voice. Workers are shaking off the image of poor, exploited individuals and emerging as an active, dynamic and unified group capable of taking action to help itself. And in so doing they are gaining more support from ordinary members of the public who can identify with their struggle.

“Chinese workers are not passive victims of repression”

by Alex Wood

You won’t hear much about it in the Western media but since 2010 a transformation of China’s labour relations has been gathering pace. After decades of oppression by the state and its puppet the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) – the only legal ‘trade union’ – the first winds of change are being felt by Chinese workers. Workers are organising independently of the ACFTU, taking successful collective action, entering into formal collective bargaining with employers and even making some inroads into reforming the ACFTU into a genuine independent trade union.

Strike Map
CLB “Strike Map” (available on website)

This new climate of worker self-organisation has seen a massive wave of strike action grip China with at least 1,171 strikes and protests taking place between June 2011 and January 2014. The strikes have been most concentrated in manufacturing, but there have also been large numbers of strikes in transport and services.

During the plenary session “The Long March of Chinese Labour”, Zhang Lingji of China Labour Bulletin drew upon some major case studies in order to illustrate the transformation gripping labour relations in China. The first case study was that of the June 2010 strike by thousands of Honda workers at a car parts factory. The strike was sparked by outrage at salaries which were so low that many workers were scarcely scarping a living whilst working for a multi-billion dollar company.  Two weeks after the start of the strike, the workers faced the traditional barrier to independent worker organisation, the ACFTU, which sent its strike breakers to attack the striking workers. However, despite this attack, the workers remained on strike. In an important precedent Beijing did not order a heavier clamp-down on the workers, despite the strike costing Honda around ¥3 billion. Instead the Communist Party remained eerily silent, leaving the local authorities, the ACFTU and the employer to find a resolution to the dispute with the workers. The workers eventually received a 35% pay rise.

Following the success at Honda, around a thousand workers went on strike at the Citizen Watch factory in Shenzhenin during October 2011. One of the major grievances was that workers had been forced to endure 40 minutes unpaid overtime each day since 2005. The workers, helped by a law-firm, forced management to enter into formal collective bargaining. This allowed them to win pay-deal for 7% of their overtime. However, most importantly, this constituted the first ever case of real formal collective bargaining. Zhang Lingji argued that this dispute raised major questions around the role of trade unions in such disputes.

liansheng china strike
Liansheng China strike

The question of the role of the official trade union was again raised, and this time partially answered, by events at Hitachi Metals factory in Guangzhou. Workplace leader, Zhu Xiaomei, attempted to set up and be elected as leader of an official union. Although Zhu was fired before she could be elected, some reps were elected to the union committee and there is hope that this will be the first step towards the official state-sanctioned union becoming a real union. In fact, when Walmart attempted to close a store in Changde, managers were shocked to be confronted by an organisation which arguably constituted a ‘real’ union. This union had a president who actually led the workers in dramatic protests for fair compensation for workers who had had their contracts terminated.

Although workers still lack the political space with which to set up independent trade unions, Zhang Lingji argued that the workers’ ability to transform ACFTU into a real union represents a realistic way forward. However the question is this: what is fuelling the changing approach of the state towards trade union organisation? Much like the social movements which have gripped much of the globe since 2009, social media seems to have played a crucial role. Whilst Facebook is banned in China, the Chinese social media outlets of Weibo and WeChat have been of central importance in enabling workers to massively increase their levels of communication. This has allowed greater coordination and dissemination of collective actions. The sheer scale of this social media facilitated labour strife has made it hard for the state to use repressive tactics without causing major disruption to the economy. One might also argue that being tolerant of collective bargaining is actually in the Communist Party’s own interest as this would lead to higher wages and thus boost consumption levels within the domestic market. Such an explanation coheres with the Chinese government’s aim of reducing China’s reliance on poorly performing export markets.

Alex Wood was a guest blogger at the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College . The views expressed in this article are therefore solely those of the author in his personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of GLI.

Suggested Reading

Zhang Lingji

China Labour Bulletin, Research Reports, a series of reports providing an in-depth analysis of some of the key labour rights issues in China today.

China Labour Bulletin, Feb 2014, “Searching for the Union The workers’ movement in China 2011-13”.

China Labour Bulletin, May 2014, “In China, labour activism is waking up”.

Pomfret, James, 2013, “Chinese Nokia workers pledge to continue strike”, Reuters, Fri Nov 22, 2013.