By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
While American workers struggle to organize and form unions, and the number of unionized workers in the United States grows smaller, there’s some exciting news from the other side of the world. In the past two weeks, Chinese workers have held strikes against Honda, the automaker, at three different plants. The Chinese government, normally intolerant of workers protesting working conditions, is allowing these Honda workers to express their discontent. This may be because Honda is a Japanese company, and anti-Japanese sentiment lingers in China even decades after World War II.
At one of the auto parts plants in southeastern China, 1,700 workers are hoping to see their wages doubled. What is particularly interesting is that the strikers are apparently engaged in sophisticated and democratic union organizing, electing shop stewards, and are demanding the right to form trade unions to be separate from Chinese government-controlled national federation of trade unions.
Two of the plants targeted by strikers have opened back up, with workers winning significant wage increases. Workers at the third plant are demanding the same wage hikes, and labor shortages are giving strikers stronger bargaining power.
But it is really disturbing to learn about the conditions under which they work for Honda, which has a pretty good reputation in the United States as a forward-looking company. These conditions harken back to America’s sweatshops of a century ago – workplaces that NCL’s Florence Kelley fought so hard to reform. The Honda plants require employees, most of whom are in their 20s and more than half of whom are women, to stand for 8 hours at a time; pregnant women are allowed to sit only in their last trimester. Salaries are about $132 for a 42-hour-week, which is minimum wage in Zhongshan, where the current strike is taking place. Workers are forbidden from speaking when they work – which is apparently common in Chinese workplaces – and they have to obtain passes before using the restrooms. And this strike began because a female worker appeared at the factory wearing her badge incorrectly and when she talked back to the guard for turning her away he shoved her to the ground. Workers live near the factories in tiny, 100-square-foot apartments, for which they pay more than 25 percent of their salary – or $44 a month.
Reforms in both salary and working conditions are clearly long overdue for these Chinese workers, and it is their good fortune that labor shortages will give them stronger bargaining power.
American consumers should be far better informed about the conditions under which the products we buy are made. The Honda plant in Zhongshan is a case in point; Honda needs to abide by an international standard of treatment for workers – and negotiate fairly in responding to the modest demands of the Chinese auto parts makers.