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Absent a Labor Union, Chinese Workers Organize With Social Media and Cheap Smartphones

BY Rebecca Chao | Friday, February 21 2014

A clothing factory in Dongguan, China (credit: Ed-meister/flickr)

The industrial city of Dongguan in Guangdong Province, China, is so littered with factories that when 1,000 workers at a Taiwanese-owned Croc manufacturing company gathered outside to protest cuts to their bonuses in the spring of 2012, no one took notice. That is until the workers took to spreading news of their strike on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. When the tweets were picked up by the labor rights group China Labor Bulletin’s (CLB) Weibo account, according to a report they released yesterday, news spread quickly. After five reporters and several local government officials arrived to investigate, the management offered a compromise and workers returned to their posts.

In their new report, CLB argues that two factors have enhanced the ability for factory workers to organize protests and strikes: social media apps like Weibo and the instant messenger WeChat, as well as the proliferation of affordable, “no-brand” smart phones, which often offer the same features as iPhone or Samsung brands. Even though workers do not necessarily use social media on a regular basis, they have come to learn how to stay connected with fellow workers and use these tools to track the developments of strikes and protests.

CLB explains:

The rapid development of social media in China over the last three years has given workers and civil society organisations a much broader voice. Workers are shaking off the image of poor, exploited individuals and emerging as an active, dynamic and unified group capable of taking action to help itself. And in so doing they are gaining more support from ordinary members of the public who can identify with their struggle.

Social media also offers an opportunity for workers to learn about effective strike methods, offers encouragement when such strikes succeed and aids in organizing across provinces. While CLB says that strikes prove difficult to sustain past 1,000 members, CLB notes cases in which workers collaborated nation-wide:

When Taiwanese food and beverage conglomerate, Tingyi Holdings announced its takeover of the Pepsi-Cola’s bottling plants in China in late 2011, Pepsi-Cola workers in five cities – Chongqing, Lanzhou, Fuzhou, Chengdu, and Nanchang – staged simultaneous strikes on 14 November in a coordinated campaign to protect their jobs and demand assurances that pay, benefits and working conditions would not be eroded as a result of the takeover.

CLB gathered data for their report on a strike map, which codes each incident according to location, industry type, workers’ demands, number of participants and the specific actions taken, as well as the outcome. CLB warns it is not a comprehensive database or all protests and strikes; it is “merely illustrative of a larger picture.”

While CLB credits the workers’ success to their adeptness with social media, in the case at the Croc factory, it was only until CLB picked up the post on their Weibo account that the protest caught the attention of media and government officials, at least in this instance. Given that Chinese government prohibits independent trade labor unions, and that the sole official union, All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has done little to represent workers, it appears that human rights and labor organizations have stepped up to fill that gap. They are often the ones assisting workers with disputes, advising laborers on how to bargain with employers and maintaining solidarity.

Nevertheless, CLB argues that there is still a need for an effective union:

Workers too increasingly realise that while they can certainly go it alone and get by without the trade union, they will have a much greater chance of creating a powerful, unified and sustainable presence in the workplace if they can reclaim the union for themselves. As such, China’s workers will continue to search for the union.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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