In China, managers are the new labor activists

Sat May 31, 2014 10:08pm EDT
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By Alexandra Harney and John Ruwitch

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Behind China's biggest strike in decades last month was a new player in Chinese labor activism: management.

A previously unpublished account from inside the strike at Taiwanese shoe manufacturer Yue Yuen obtained by Reuters shows that supervisors were the first to challenge senior plant leaders about the social insurance contributions that became the focus of the dispute. Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings declined to comment.

The involvement of managers underscores the growing complexity and unpredictability of labor relations in China. A generation of long-serving migrant factory employees is starting to retire just as the economy slows and the spread of social media makes strikes easier to organize.

Yue Yuen's strike wasn't the first time in recent years managers, rather than front-line workers, helped orchestrate industrial action in China. Managers were also involved in leading a strike at IBM's facility in Shenzhen in March, according to a worker and another person briefed on the strike. IBM declined to comment.

Supervisors and other low- and mid-level managers also helped corral workers during a March strike at Shanmukang Technology, which supplies mobile phone cases to Samsung Electronics, a former employee said.

Managers have been orchestrating strikes during international deals for years, lawyers said. "It happens all the time" that managers encourage workers to strike during an international transaction that affects a company's Chinese operations, said Jonathan Isaacs, special counsel with responsibility for Chinese employment and labor issues at law firm Baker & McKenzie in Hong Kong.

In many cases "the reason an M&A transaction, layoffs or restructuring goes sideways or causes labor unrest is that the local management were disgruntled and riled up the rank-and-file workers", he added.

In November 2011, mid-level managers led thousands of PepsiCo Inc workers to strike in protest against the terms of the company's acquisition by Tingyi Holdings, according to Hong Kong-based worker advocacy group China Labour Bulletin (CLB).   Continued...

Workers protest during a strike as police stand guard at a crossroads near the factory area of Yue Yuen Industrial, in Dongguan, Guangdong province April 18, 2014. The strike at Yue Yuen - which says it is the world's largest branded footwear manufacturer, making over 300 million pairs of shoes last year - is not just one of China's biggest in recent years, it's also more clearly driven by workers' fears that they have been scammed by an opaque and convoluted welfare payment system. Picture taken April 18, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT) CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA - RTR3LUBO