SHANGHAI/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Many of the thousands of shoe factory workers who have staged one of China's biggest strikes over the past two weeks have returned to work after the company agreed to meet some of their core demands, workers and a company official said on Friday.
Three workers at the vast Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings Ltd complex in the southern city of Dongguan estimated that more than half, maybe as many as 70 percent, of the 40,000-strong workforce had gone back to work by Friday.
"Most are back at work now," worker Ren Zongjie told Reuters by telephone. Another worker put the number at closer to 20 percent.
Labor activists say the strike has been one of China's biggest since market reforms started in the late 1970s, prompting German sportswear firm Adidas AG to shift some orders to suppliers elsewhere in China. A spokesman for rival Nike Inc, which also sources footwear from the facility, said the company was watching the situation closely.
"As of today, we say a majority of the workers are back to work... Overall, production lines in the factories are generally back to work," said George Liu, executive director at Yue Yuen. "For those groups still protesting, we are trying our best to communicate with them."
Workers went on strike on April 14 to protest against what they said were chronically low company contributions to state-mandated social insurance and housing provident fund accounts.
On Friday, a spokesman for the Ministry of Labor and Social Security told reporters in Beijing that Yue Yuen had underpaid its social welfare contributions. "The related department has already ordered the factory to rectify the wrongdoings before April 25," Li Zhong said. "Our ministry will continue to keep a close watch on the progress of the issue."
Several workers in Dongguan reached by telephone said they had returned to work after Yue Yuen offered to back-fill social insurance and housing payments. But workers would be watching carefully for concrete action, said one female, surnamed Liu.
The company had created some pressure for workers to return to their factories by removing electronic card readers used to clock in and out, workers said. "They're making us sign a timesheet once an hour to make sure we're in the factory," said one. Some were signing in, but not working.
Yue Yuen's Liu denied the company had violated any laws or regulations with the insurance payments it had been making. "There is no wrongdoing. We have always been in compliance with the relevant government laws and regulations," he told Reuters.
The strike has made officials nervous, however, and labor activist Zhang Zhiru and a colleague, Lin Dong, were detained this week by state security agents. Zhang was freed after two days, but Lin was still in detention, Zhang told Reuters.
Zhang, who has been assisting workers for a decade, had been working with other activists and lawyers to help Yue Yuen workers organize and press their demands. He visited the Dongguan site on Monday after an attempt last week was thwarted by security agents.
Editing by Ian Geoghegan