Following the relaxation of stringent COVID-19 regulations, industrial action across Chinese factories has markedly increased. The China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a non-governmental organization situated in Hong Kong, reports that strikes have tripled this year compared to 2022, with over 130 instances already recorded.
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Although the CLB’s dataset may not encompass every incident, it provides a crucial glimpse into the escalating trend of collective industrial action across the nation as it navigates the transition from severe COVID-19 restrictions.
Financial duress is primarily fuelling these industrial disputes. Despite the gradual rebound of the economy, Chinese industrial establishments grapple with the lingering impact of three years of zealous zero-COVID measures. The deteriorating diplomatic relationship between China and the United States further compounds the economic strain.
In response to these challenges, factories are increasingly resorting to delaying wage payments, or deploying strategies to circumvent severance pay. This trend persists despite China’s authoritarian structure, which does not typically facilitate protests. Nevertheless, localized disputes concerning wage arrears are now a ubiquitous occurrence across Chinese factories and construction sites.
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In 2022, the Foxconn technology group’s Apple iPhone factory experienced a significant strike over bonus payment delays. However, such protests often lack any tangible link to a wider workers’ movement due to the restrictions on independent trade unions imposed by the government.
The government’s attempts to protect workers’ rights since the 2000s, including the introduction of the labor contract law in 2008, have largely been circumvented by employers. Indeed, fewer than half of migrant workers, a substantial demographic within the workforce, possess written employment contracts.
Strikes are also becoming more prevalent within the gig economy. Notably, in April, hundreds of drivers for the Chinese food delivery giant Meituan organized a strike protesting against low wages and perilous working conditions. The scale of this strike, coupled with the nationwide support it elicited, represents a significant development in collective action in the post-pandemic period. However, the punitive measures adopted by the government against organizers serve as a cautionary tale against more ambitious demands.