China: Honda workers resume work but give company a deadline to meet their demands

On Tuesday and Wednesday, June 1 and 2, most workers returned to work at the Honda plant in Foshan, China, after strike action which had started on May 17. As we reported earlier, the workers were fighting for substantial wage increases.

The company (a Japanese multinational operating though a joint venture with Chinese State Owned companies, responded with threats, attempts to divide the workers and the sacking of two of the strike’s leaders. Then it made an offer of a 24% wage increase, a substantial raise for the workers but still less than their demands, which it tried to impose on the workforce with the help of the ACFTU union officials. The attempt to bully the workers, many of them young interns, into accepting the offer led to physical clash between the workers and the “union” thugs.

Finally the workers accepted to return to work, but warned that they wanted a clear answer from the company on all of their demands by Friday, June 4, or they would go back to strike. "Management told us that they will respond to our demands by Friday. If they don't, we'll go back on strike," said an 18-year old intern, who added there was a 70 percent chance of another walkout.

Faced with the outright opposition of the official ACFTU union structures, the workers have started to organise themselves, while at the same time demanding the right to elect the factory trade union chairman and all trade union officials. Now, for the first time they have issued an official statement, an open letter which they address “To all the workers and the community”. The letter, expressing the collective will of the striking workers calls on workers to maintain unity and also rejects the letter of apology issued by the local ACFTU union officials for the incidents on Monday. The unprecedented letter of apology sounds like a desperate attempt to maintain the legitimacy of the official structures of the ACFTU as “mediators” between workers and management. The “apology” expresses clearly the view of the ACFTU officials regarding labour relations when it explains that: “We believe that consultation between employers and employees should be based on mutual trust, mutual understanding and mutual support the premise, and both sides should make certain concessions and compromises in order to reach consensus more quickly.” It also hints at “negative interference from outside” and it ends with an appeal to the workers: “please believe that trade unions, party committees and governments at all levels, I believe, will do justice”.

The problem for them is precisely that, through their own experience, the workers at the Honda plant have lost faith that the “trade unions, party committees and government at all level” will improve their situation. The open letter from the striking workers rejects this “apology” as based on “distorting the facts,” once again reiterates that “the factory trade union representatives must be elected by the front-line workers”. One 23-year-old employee quoted by the South China Morning Post said workers felt insulted by the actions of the trade union representatives. “Now it's not a matter of pay rises, but upholding our dignity,” he said. The “open letter” is clearly an important step forward in the organization of the workers.

Photo by provincial official at the Labour and Social Security Department, who spoke to business magazine Caixing on condition of anonymity was very frank about the problems faced by the official trade union structures: “unions are also very confused, because of the existing system so that they do not know which side to represent”. Because the policy of the party and the government “emphasizes the 'maintenance of stability' principle, it is difficult to act unilaterally and stand in the position of workers.” This is precisely the problem, the official ACFTU union structures are not designed to defend the interests of the workers but to “maintain stability” by mediating between bosses and workers. The striking Honda workers have learned very quickly that this does not serve to advance their interests and this is why they are demanding genuine democratic trade union structures controlled by the rank and file.

Interns at the plant are seeking, among other demands, an 800 yuan ($117.2) monthly salary hike, an annual salary increase of no less than 15 percent, year-end bonuses no less than the preceding year's, salaries during the strike period, and a new chairman to lead a restructured union. Intern workers suffer the worst conditions, but the situation of workers in general is not very good. A World Bank survey report considers that the basic living standard in China would require wages of 1684 yuan per person per month, working 40 hours per week. In contrast, the Pearl River Delta migrant workers work on average 66 hours per week, 120 hours of overtime a month to get 1,685 yuan wage. The workers at Honda Foshan were getting between 900 and 1200 yuan.

Speaking to Japanese paper The Mainichi Daily News, some of the Honda workers described their conditions in the company provided dormitories:

Eight to 10 people live together in each apartment, all sharing a single bathroom. "The company pays the rent, but we have to pay for food, electricity, water and daily necessities ourselves. After paying all that, there's usually only a little over a 100 yuan (about 1,350 yen) left," said one 18-year-old from Henan province.

Political implications of the strike

The Chinese state is torn between its attempts to achieve a “harmonious society” and promote China’s internal market (at a time when foreign markets have been severely hit by the recession), which is the only way to maintain legitimacy as a political power, and the threat of an independent workers’ movement which would soon start to raise political demands and threaten the very legitimacy of the state and the “Communist” Party.

Furthermore, because Honda operates in China through joint ventures with State Owned companies, the state is also the employer against whom these workers are fighting. According to a report by Reuters, one of the people who tried to put an end to the strike was “Zeng Qinghong, a member of the National People's Congress and vice chairman of a Honda joint venture partner, Guangzhou Automobile Group.” He “visited the factory to negotiate with the workers on behalf of the company”, according to Honda sources.

Because of the role of the state in the economy and the role of the “Communist” Party in the state and the economy, any strike movement in China immediately raises political questions. Unfortunately there are some, like Han Dongfang, who want to prevent the movement from becoming political. “I’m trying my best to depoliticise the labour movement in China,” he says. Han, currently running the China Labour Bulletin, was involved in the setting up of the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation in 1989 during the Tiananmen events.

By taking strike action, the political awareness of the workers has increased tenfold. “We are not striking for the 1,800 employees but looking after the interests of all workers in the whole country. We want to set a good example of how their rights are protected,” the workers said.

Workers draw lessons

They are right, of course, and thousands of workers at other factories throughout China, working in similar conditions, will be watching what happens at Honda. If the workers achieve a victory, the message will be clear: strike action and workers self-organisation is the way forward.

A report in the Los Angeles Times quoted Hu Jiushang, a 22-year-old migrant worker in the factory town of Shenzhen, who said that he was “paying attention to local news reports of the Honda stoppage”. He said he could see a similar action taking place at his cellphone and computer-panel factory, where workers have to apply in writing for their legally mandated weekly day off. Many don't bother and work weeks on end without a break:

"Some co-workers and I wrote a letter asking for the situation to improve and left it in the suggestions box, but nothing's changed," said Hu, who had taken one day off in the last month."

We have already reported on the strike at the Hyundai plant in Beijing over the weekend. According to the Beijing Times “around 1,000 workers at the parts factory started striking Friday afternoon. ” “They returned to work late Saturday afternoon after the management promised a 15 percent pay rise soon and a further 10 percent rise in July,” the paper reported.

The workers at Honda and other factories have been using internet chat rooms, blogs, social media networks and other means to publish news about their actions, to express their views, share information, publish their own videos of the strikes. It is difficult for state censors to suppress all of this information and even if they do, many would have read it by the time it is deleted.

One of the Honda strikers posted one such account of their reasons for striking, which has been translated into English. This is an extremely interesting piece which shows the development of the political thinking of this generation of young workers.

He starts by stressing the point that Honda and the car industry in general is very profitable and that all of this wealth is created by the workers:

“We all know that the automotive industry is a highly profitable industry. This is created by us front line workers! But what do those of us who create the profits get? If we are not satisfied we can of course resign, but Honda will continue to recruit people, and our brothers and sisters would continue to suffer here! Even if we quit we have to fight for our brothers’ and sisters’ benefit! This is another reason for us to continue to strike!”

Here the worker is not only expressing the basic contradiction between labour and capital but also stresses the need for working class solidarity.

The Honda worker then moves from the particular position at this one factory to draw more general conclusions about the situation of migrant workers, the nature of economic growth in China and who has benefited from it:

“China! It has been promoting low-cost competition and cheap labor. Our GDP keeps growing! However, this growth relies on exploiting our cheap labor. We have created all this wealth but only get very low wages in return. Our wages are still at the level of the minimum wage. We are still struggling to get by with this. We created this wealth. Don’t we deserve to get better pay? With such deplorable wages, just how are we going to raise the overall level of our national economy? This (kind of injustice) is just too common!”

He clearly articulates the feeling of a new generation of young workers who have higher expectations:

“Our parents have suffered from this cheap labor market and now they are getting old. And now, do we, the post ‘80 and ‘90 generation, want to follow in the footstep of our parents? I believe no parent wants this. It is because they all once walked down this road and know how hard it is. We do not want to go this way either. Times have changed! So this kind of cheap labor regime must end!” (our emphasis).

Finally, he draws very advanced political conclusions:

“Honda is a Japanese company and Japan is a capitalist country. But China is supposed to be a socialist country! The Japanese companies investing in China must follow the rules of China. Implement socialism! Do not give us capitalism!”

The contradictions between the official discourse (“socialism”, “a harmonious society”) here come to the fore in a sharp way. His message is clear and it is against capitalism and for socialism.

What a difference between the voice of the rank and file striking workers and the voice of the China “labour experts” abroad who insist that the Chinese labour movement should not become political!

In the last few days, reports of the Honda Foshan strike have run parallel with reports of the suicides by workers at the massive Foxconn plants in Shenzhen. One of the Chinese reporters who went undercover into the factory to find out about the real working conditions of hundreds of thousands of workers, wrote an extremely interesting piece which was published in China Daily.

He explains how it is the system of over exploitation of labour which has led to this spate of suicides.

“Aside from way of production that reduces its staff to an absolute decimal point - almost anyone can pay to get in and be replaced at any second - the company has fostered a culture where its staff are trained to shiver in conformity before any authority - be it money, the boss and management or foreigners (who Foxconn's products are mostly for).”

His conclusion is clear.

“I have been led to believe this corporate culture was a direct cause of the recent tragedies. Every rural kid came to this hub of the "world factory" to realize their "Chinese Dream". But most of them ended up sacrificing themselves to realize that dream for people completely out of their league. Meanwhile, at Foxconn, the corporate culture has numbed them to an extent where any organization and collective struggle are deemed not only undesirable, but also backward. That, then, leaves them with only one choice.”

He then contrasts the situation at Foxconn with the inspiration provided by the collective struggle of workers at Honda and other factories where workers have gone on strike:

“Suicide is the ultimate form of contestation for individuals, but only collective struggle could truly win social change for people suffering the same working conditions. For workers on the production line at Foxconn and beyond, killing themselves means no more than to prove to the world their belittled existence and reaffirm to fellow comrades that there is no escape. But there indeed is light at the end of the tunnel. That's why, as stories of despair at Foxconn fade, those of hope have emerged from Foshan, Guangdong to Pingdingshan, Henan and Lanzhou, Gansu.”

The message is clear and will connect with millions of workers in China: “only collective struggle could truly win social change for people suffering the same working conditions”. The mighty proletariat of China has started to awaken and once it is on the move no force on Earth will be able to stop its march. Armed with a correct program and perspective, which will be developed in the course of the struggle, they can take over control of the wealth they have created with their labour and run it in the benefit of working people.

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