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Social media rebalances playing field for Chinese workers

New York Times - May 3, 2014

Dan Levin, Dongguan, China The call to action, carried by social media to thousands of smartphones across this bleak factory town, roused the workers from their jobs making Nike and Adidas sneakers.

Their Taiwanese employer, Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings, the world's largest manufacturer of branded athletic shoes, had for years underpaid the social security contributions that employees were counting on for retirement.

News of the shortfall, discovered and disseminated by a newly retired worker, stirred familiar resentments. But it was the company's refusal to make amends that led to one of China's largest strikes in recent memory, involving 40,000 workers who stayed off assembly lines for two weeks and cost Yue Yuen about $US27 million ($29 million) in losses.

Last week, the company announced it would make up the missing payments and start fully funding worker pensions as required by Chinese law.

Although played down by the state-run news media, the mass walkout illustrates the growing might of Chinese workers amid a shrinking labour pool, a slowing economy and the Communist Party's fears of social unrest. The strike also highlights the increasing potency of social media despite the government's best efforts to limit news and information that might inspire workers to stand up to employers.

"Chinese workers now have greater bargaining power, and they know how to use this power," said Geoffrey Crothall, communications director at China Labor Bulletin, an advocacy group in Hong Kong.

The proletariat may be a vaunted pillar of Mao's Communist revolution, but the workaday reality for China's low-wage army of factory workers long ago eclipsed their hallowed status. On paper, Chinese workers are afforded generous rights and protections, but since the introduction of market reforms in the 1980s, factory owners, many of them multinational companies from Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong, have often set the terms of employment.

But that power dynamic has begun to shift, fueled in part by increasing opportunities in the country's expanding service sector and a shrinking workforce. The mounting labour shortage has strengthened the hand of Chinese workers, who increasingly demand better work conditions, higher pay and perks like days off.

Last year, China's 269 million migrant workers earned an average of $US410 a month, an increase of nearly 14 percent from 2012 and almost twice the growth rate in the nation's gross domestic product.

These gains do not come easily. In recent years, workers across the country have been turning their aspirations into action, staging more than 1100 strikes and protests between June 2011 and the end of 2013, according to China Labor Bulletin. In a sign that labour unrest is rising, there have been more than 200 strikes, including 85 in the manufacturing sector, in the past two months alone, the group said.

Technology is aiding that trend. Better educated than their parents and as nimble on a computer as they are on an assembly line, blue-collar workers have become well versed in labour law, less tolerant of onerous schedules and more willing to share complaints beyond their immediate circle of co-workers.

Perhaps most worrisome to Chinese authorities, during the Yue Yuen strike, workers and administrative staff joined together largely without the help of protest leaders, who can be easily neutralised by the police. Employees turned to social media and spread messages faster than censors could stop them. Their most effective weapon was the popular mobile messaging program Weixin, which has nearly 300 million users in China and is also known by its English name, WeChat.

"Before, we were naive and always getting tricked," said Xiao Zhixiong, 30, a migrant from China's central Hunan province who makes sneaker molds. "Now, we're learning to be smart."

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/social-media-rebalances-playing-field-for-chinese-workers-20140503-zr417.html.

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