by Ralf Ruckus (January 2018) | Unrest in China’s Car Factories
Deutsch | English
In late 2016, more than one thousand temporary agency workers at the Chinese-German automobile joint venture FAW-Volkswagen in Changchun, China, started a labor protest. Many of them had been sent to the joint venture’s factory by their temporary work agency for years, but they earned far less than FAW-Volkswagen’s formal workers—for doing the same work on assembly lines. They demanded “equal pay for equal work,” compensation for previous years of unequal payment, better work contracts, and more. Over the next few months, they staged demonstrations, wrote petitions, and went to court. However, the company FAW-Volkswagen made little concessions, the local courts did not accept their case, and, in June 2017, the local authorities even arrested some of the workers’ leaders.1 This struggle is a recent prominent example of labor unrest of automobile workers in China, particularly of those among them who are often seen as “weak”—temporary agency workers.
In this book on the development of the Chinese automobile industry and the situation and struggle of automobile workers, Zhang Lu describes how the employers have been using labor force dualism for years and with the support of the state to divide their labor forces into two groups, formal and temporary agency workers, and weaken labor struggles. This strategy worked only partially. During her research from the mid-2000s until the early 2010s in seven large automobile factories in China—including two Chinese-German joint ventures—she came across several forms of resistance by temporary agency workers and formal workers, like effort bargaining, sabotage, open protest, and strikes.2
So far, the most prominent struggle of automobile workers in China was the strike at the Honda transmission plant in Foshan in mid-2010—with young student intern workers as the most active force. That strike, as well as other autoworkers’ struggles before, made full use of workers’ strong workplace bargaining power in the auto industry’s just-in-time production system, which enabled the autoworkers to disrupt the production process at one vital point and shut down the production in all Honda assembly plants in China. The workers of the transmission plant won high wage increases, and their widely reported success triggered a wave of other strikes during that year and forced many employers to increase the wages by over 20 percent. Furthermore, the Chinese government, concerned with social unrest and in an attempt to diffuse it, raised the minimum wage standard substantially.3
These strikes, and many struggles in other sectors in China since the mid-2000s, were mostly organized by migrant workers, the labor power behind China’s rise to the global center of industrial production since the 1990s, and their struggles have made China the “epicenter of world labor unrest” in the past decade.4
Zhang Lu’s book helps us to understand the development and social relations on the shop-floors as well as the local, regional, and global context of these struggles in one central economic sector, the automobile industry. For the Chinese government, the automobile industry is a strategic “industrial pillar,” and changes and labor struggles in that industry have strong and far-reaching effects as China is not only the largest producer of automobiles but also the largest automobile market. It is thus no surprise that all the major global automobile companies have production facilities there—including German companies like Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes Benz and BMW.
In this book, Zhang Lu explains the development of a largely autonomous automobile sector during the Mao era that was restructured and expanded during the reform period. She describes the historical role of the Chinese state and the world’s major automobile corporations through joint ventures (JVs) with state-owned enterprises (SOEs) for the industry’s take-off in the 1980s and 1990s. And she looks at the impact of China’s WTO membership in 2001, the new wave of foreign investment and the rise of Chinese automakers in the 2000s and early 2010s. Based on observatory research and a large number of interviews in the factories she analyzes the changes on the shop floor, the harsh working conditions on the assembly lines, the strict factory hierarchy, and the dubious role of company unions and Communist Party committees who side with the employers. The book also stresses the importance of socialist legacies for the control and management of workers inside both SOEs and JVs between foreign automobile companies and Chinese state capital. The evidence shows that the pressure from below by workers, without union representation, has led to increasing wages and policy changes, including the passage of new labor laws such as the Labor Contract Law in 2008.
Since the English original was first published in 2015, many changes have taken place in the Chinese auto industry, including the current transition to electric cars and the related reorganization of the industry. However, Zhang Lu’s observations still largely hold, in particular, her emphasis on the role of continuing struggles by Chinese autoworkers in informing the state’s and employers responses to the crisis of profitability and the pace of transition in times of restructuring. A central arena of contention, as highlighted in the book, is how the state and employers attempt to overcome the contradiction between maintaining profitability (in the interest of capital) and legitimacy (among workers) through boundary-drawing strategies, as exemplified in the expanded use of labor force dualism. This, in turn, has a direct impact on the actions of formal workers and temporary agency workers, as reflected in the ongoing struggles by the temporary agency workers at FAW-Volkswagen in Changchun.
In December 2017, FAW-Volkswagen offered the temporary agency workers formal contracts at FAW-Volkswagen—under the condition that the workers refrain from asking for compensation for past unequal pay. This seemed like a dirty trick as the contracts of the workers at their temporary agency were running out at the end of the month and workers were asked to accept the offer or lose their job altogether. Most accepted, while only a handful did not and declared that they will continue to fight.
Meanwhile, one of the workers, their leader Fu Tianbo, is still in jail waiting for his trial for allegedly “gathering crowds to disrupt social order,” a standard accusation the Chinese authorities use to silence and lock up those who fight against exploitation and repression.
Earlier, during the summer of 2017, the Chinese temporary agency workers from Changchun—faced with the relentless position of their Chinese and German employers and the Chinese state—had also sent letters to Volkswagen, Volkswagen workers, and the Volkswagen works council in Germany asking for support.5
The reaction was threefold: hardly any response from Volkswagen; hardly any reaction from Volkswagen workers and grassroots union activists; and German Volkswagen works council representatives from the German metal workers’ union IG Metall replied with an indifferent and indicative letter telling the Chinese workers to seek help locally from FAW-Volkswagen and the local authorities—i.e, the company the workers were going against and the authorities which were responsible for the court’s refusal to accepting the case and the arrest of workers’ leaders.6 After getting this response, one of Chinese temporary agency workers posted a telling message online: “The Germans don’t care. So it’s on us to fight!”7
In this book, Chinese-German automobile joint ventures—including those with Volkswagen—play an important role, and the collaboration of Chinese state capital and a German semi-state enterprise like Volkswagen shows the complementary roles both play in the organization of exploitation within China’s authoritarian system. This reminds us of Volkswagen’s role in the repression of workers’ resistance by other authoritarian regimes such as in Brazil and South Africa in the 1980s, which became a hot topic in German media only recently.8 This book provides important information and insights for the discussion about such collaboration between German (and other foreign) capital with the Chinese state capital, the forms of exploitation and the workers’ fights for better conditions and a better life. Hopefully, it will instigate more interest and support for the situation and struggles of workers in China from workers and labor activists in the German-speaking world.
For the same purpose, additional information, articles, links and more on the book, the Chinese automobile industry and the automobile workers’ struggles get published on the website gongchao.org.9
1 For more on that struggle see Ruckus, Ralf. 2017. “‘The Germans don’t care. So it’s on us to fight!’ – Temporary workers at the FAW-VW joint venture in China demand equal pay and get criminalized while elsewhere VW workers’ struggles erupt.” gongchao.org, October 9 [http://www.gongchao.org/2017/10/12/leiharbeiter-bei-faw-vw-in-china-im-kampf/] and Xia Nü, 2018. “Has the Workers’ Protest at FAW-Volkswagen Ended?” gongchao.org, January 15 [http://www.gongchao.org/2018/01/15/has-the-workers-protest-at-faw-vw-ended].
2 Zhang Lu analyzed the development of the Chinese automobile industry and the workers’ struggles in an earlier publication in German, see Zhang Lu. 2008. “Chinas Automobilindustrie – Schlanke Produktion und Kontrolle der ArbeiterInnen in einem Zeitalter der Globalisierung.” In: Pun Ngai, Ching Kwan Lee et al.: Aufbruch der zweiten Generation: Wanderarbeit, Gender und Klassenzusammensetzung in China. Berlin, pp. 50–78. See also the review of this book and an interview with the author in Ruckus, Ralf. 2016. “Chinese Capitalism in Crisis, Part 1: Zhang Lu on exploitation and workers’ struggle in China’s auto industry.” In: Sozial.Geschichte Online, 18, pp. 119–144 [http://duepublico.uni-duisburg-essen.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-41181/07_Ruckus_ZhangLu.pdf].
3 For more on that struggle see Gongchao, Friends of. 2010. “‘Sie haben das selbst organisiert’ – Die Streikwelle von Mai bis Juli 2010 in China.” In: Pun Ngai, Ching-Kwan Lee et al.: Aufbruch der zweiten Generation. (see foonote 2) pp. 225–257 [http://www.gongchao.org/2010/10/01/sie-haben-das-selbst-organisiert-die-streikwelle-von-mai-bis-juli-2010-in-china].
Zhang Lu co-authored an article with Beverly Silver on that topic: Silver, Beverly J. and Zhang Lu. 2010. “China: Emerging Epicenter of World Labor Unrest?” In: Hung, Ho-fung (ed.). China and the transformation of global capitalism. Baltimore. pp. 174–187 [http://soc.jhu.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/28/2012/02/SilverZhang2009.pdf]. Two previous German books in this series discussed the struggles of workers in China and their regional and global importance in another sector: Pun Ngai et al. 2013. iSlaves. Ausbeutung und Widerstand in Chinas Foxconn-Fabriken. Vienna [http://www.gongchao.org/de/islaves-buch], and in an important industrial area—Hao Ren et al. 2014. Streiks im Perlflussdelta. Arbeiterwiderstand in Chinas Weltmarktfabriken. Vienna [http://www.gongchao.org/de/streiks-buch].
7 Ruckus. 2017. “‘The Germans don’t care. So it’s on us to fight!’” (see footnote 1). Some labor activists, including the workers’ network LabourNet Germany, not only published the Chinese temporary agency workers’ letters but also showed their support. See, for instance, articles on [http://www.labournet.de/category/internationales/china/arbeitsbedingungen-china/vw-china].
8 See, for instance, Der Spiegel. 2017. “Volkswagen soll Militärdiktatur in Brasilien unterstützt haben.” Spiegel Online, July 24 [http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/unternehmen/brasilien-volkswagen-soll-militaerdiktatur-unterstuetzt-haben-a-1159357.html].