Economy

The proletariat revolts

Riots at a factory in Jiangsu province over pay and work conditions

As you swipe your finger across your iPhone, you probably give little thought to the factory in Suzhou where its touchscreen is made.

But that factory has been hitting the headlines locally, after more than 2,000 of its workers went on the rampage on January 15, destroying equipment and smashing company vehicles. Workers also blocked a road and clashed with police.

The facility is owned by Taiwan’s Wintek, and its 15,000 employees make the screens for Apple’s iconic product as well as handsets made by Nokia and Motorola.

So why the militant industrial action? A couple of causes have been put forward.

The first factor – as is often the case – is said to be money.

Workers were less restless in 2008 when the global economy was struggling. If the year end bonus was cancelled, many grumbled but accepted it. But in recent months they’ve been back to working overtime to meet orders.

At Wintek, the company’s revenue grew 30% in the second quarter of 2009 and perked up further in the second half, according to 51touch.com.

Then rumours hit the factory floor that the management once again planned to withhold the year end bonus – typically awarded to workers around Chinese New Year (which falls in mid-February).

This time around the workers were not so accommodating.

A government investigation into the unrest seemed to confirm the view that pay was the key cause of the unrest, agreed the 21CN Business Herald. But the report also pointed to a recent history of tense labour relations at the factory, and blamed poor management performance. “For a long time, the views of the staff have not been handled in a proper and timely fashion,” it noted.

One worker complaint that should have received more immediate management attention related to health and safety, the China Daily speculates.

In particular it seems little was done to respond to employee concerns about the use of hexane, a chemical used in cleaning handset LCD screens. “The truth has been hidden from public view,” one worker complained, “There are people dying from long term exposure to the toxins used in the factory.” Previously the factory had used alcohol for cleaning purposes but had switched to hexane last year to improve product quality.

Local authorities and the company admit that 47 workers had shown symptoms of hexane poisoning but “had received due treatment”. Hexane-induced deaths were strongly denied.

Unfortunately it’s not the first case of an industrial dispute turning violent. Workers often opt for confrontation out of frustration that so few other options are available.

Last July a thousand workers staged a 10 hour riot in Jilin province when they heard of mass layoffs, for instance. Shanghai-based lawyer Sun Suiqin wasn’t surprised by the unrest, telling the China Daily that “in most cases workers are forced to resort to violence in order to gain public attention since we do not have an efficient legal system.”


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