A commentary by Tan Haojun on the State Council’s news network, China.com, dismissed management claims that the dispute erupted simply because of a misunderstanding over year-end bonuses, saying the true causes of the strike ran much deeper.
“What we need to focus on is the inhumane treatment of workers in such enterprises,” Tan said, “as well as the lack of channels for workers to express their demands and grievances, or any avenues to resolve these issues. In these situations, resentment slowly builds up, and one single incident can get out of control and spark an explosion.”
Workers at United Win (China) Technology Ltd Co, a subsidiary of Wintek, one of the world’s leading producers of mobile phone panels and LCD panels, said the real reason for the demonstration was the company’s disregard for the health of its employees. At least four workers at the plant have reportedly died from exposure to hexane, a toxic chemical used in the manufacturing process, although the local authorities have only confirmed that 47 workers suffered hexane poisoning but later recovered.
The health issues were compounded by poor pay, long working hours and bad food at the company canteen, exactly the same issues that led to a strike involving up to 7,000 workers at another Wintek subsidiary in Dongguan in April last year. Management responded in that case by sacking 19 of the strikers.
The Suzhou workers had made numerous approaches to the local government about the poor conditions at United Win but received short shrift.
“I don’t know if local government officials really understand what is happening in certain foreign funded enterprises, or if they can take appropriate measures to facilitate consultation and resolution of the problems there,” Tan said.
Tan was even more critical of the trade unions in foreign-funded enterprises: “We know that in developed countries, workers can voice their demands on work conditions, wage levels and benefits, etc through the trade union, and they can go on strike if the dispute can not be resolved. However, the trade unions in China’s foreign-funded enterprises are basically in a state of paralysis. What’s more, some enterprise unions have become a tool with which the foreign boss can abuse the workers, a machine to squeeze out their blood and sweat. This is certainly something to think about.”
He warned foreign enterprise bosses not to try to take advantage of the “tolerance, obedience and industriousness” of China’s workers by bullying or coercing them and by violating their rights. “That would be a mistake,” he said.
Tan recommended that in addition to establishing unions in foreign funded enterprises, it was necessary to improve channels of communication, government supervision and union organisation. “Unless normalised, favourable and ordered labour relations are established,” he warned, “it will be very difficult to stop such incidents from happening again.”
The tone and substance of the commentary closely reflect a lengthy article published last month in Liaowang, the magazine of the Xinhua News Agency, which exposed the extent to which labour relations in China had deteriorated over the last year, with enterprises deliberately taking advantage of the government’s leniency during the global financial crisis to exploit their workforce. The article called on the government and trade unions to take concerted measures, including the introduction of collective bargaining, to alleviate the growing conflict between workers and management.