Worker strikes in China ‘too common to suppress’

21 February 2013

By Daniel Hurst, National Times

Chinese workers are now launching too many strikes and protests for authorities to suppress, according to a union dissident visiting Australia.

Chinese dissident Han Dongfang, who was expelled from the country 20 years ago, told the Australian Workers’ Union conference on the Gold Coast the new generation of Chinese workers were better educated and aspirational than their parents and no longer willing to accept exploitation.

He spoke of the 2010 strike at the Honda plant in Nanhai that secured 24 per cent pay rise and a promise of democratic union elections. Meanwhile, employees at a state-owned oil firm in the Maoist heartland of Yan’an staged protests and demanded talks with management after a push to cut job security and benefits.

Han Dongfang, who founded China’s first independent trade union during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, said many people may ask themselves why the Chinese government had allowed the workers’ movement to develop to the point where even state-owned enterprises had to listen to their employees.

But he said there were now simply too many strikes and worker protests to suppress.

”Every day, somewhere in the country workers in factories and construction sites, street cleaners and bus drivers, teachers and shop workers withdraw their labour,” he told the AWU’s national conference on Wednesday.

”So the real question is what would happen if the authorities did try to repress these demands? If that happened, the Communist Party would truly put themselves in a huge threat to its power.
”It is one thing to suppress student and dissident-led calls for democracy, as the party did in the 1980s; it is quite another thing entirely to suppress the calls for a decent living from hundreds of millions of workers three decades later in the year 2013.”

Han Dongfang, now based in Hong Kong and running the China Labour Bulletin, said the advent of social media in China made it easier to organise strikes and keep co-workers informed of progress in negotiations.

In an appeal to workers outside of China, he said people should welcome improvement in the lives of workers in the world’s most populous country as it would help stimulate gains in other countries.

Han Dongfang told Fairfax Media he was motivated to help workers improve their conditions, not by the hope of being able to return to China after 20 years.

”My main target is not myself going back; that’s no longer the biggest issue,” he said.

AWU national secretary Paul Howes described Han Dongfang as a ”hero” and pledged to support the creation of new, independent democratic unions in China.

The talk to hundreds of AWU delegates came on the third day of the union’s national conference, which runs every two years.

Mr Howes will use an address on Thursday, the final day of the event, to outline the AWU’s plans to mobilise union members to support the re-election of the Gillard government.

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