Dongguan Labor Protests | China, Global Consumers Prioritize Products Over People


Michael Ransom, Contributing EditorLast Modified: 23:02 p.m. DST, 29 April 2014

Machine Room Photo by Nathan SniderBEIJING, China -- Years of underpaid social security payments and housing allotments have sparked the protest of thousands of Chinese laborers. The Yue Yuen factory in Dongguan is the global leader in shoe production, employing over 60,000. In the last month, manufacturing has halted. 

In many cases, various forms of compensation were simply unpaid to thousands who do the legwork for corporate giants such as Nike, Adidas, New Balance and Timberland.

The violations of Yue Yuen range from outstanding salaries to mandatory, uncompensated overtime. All of these damages go against Chinese regulations, and are illegal, though apparently permissible. Until now.

Officials are taking notice. But the response of the police and the corporation bear no resemblance. Yue Yuen executives have offered to increase compensation, but have failed to address the concerns over unpaid social insurance and unacceptable factory safety practices. The strike continues, as workers have witnessed this corporate song and dance for decades, with little lasting change. 

On the other hand, many protestors have been jailed since demonstrations escalated earlier this month. The organizer of the demonstration, Zhang Zhiru, has presumably been detained by officials, although his family has been unable to locate or speak with him. The subtext to these actions is that whistleblowers such as Zhiru will be silenced, as well as those who support the cause.

According to An Open Letter to Adidas and Yue Yuen Dongguan, China, a representative for Yue Yuen stated "The misunderstanding has to be clarified by the government." In the wake of the mass incarceration of demonstrators, this statement is very telling. To Yue Yuen, "The misunderstanding" should be read as--the false impression that the voice of Chinese laborers factors into the dealings of the corporate powerhouse. The "clarification from the government" that Yue Yuen is waiting on will surely be the clarity that comes from the iron fist of an autocratic agenda. 

Much of the media attention has centered upon the disruption of sneaker production, as opposed to the people directly affected by the corporate bottom line. The Western discussion of the movement is more concerned with the potential supply fluctuation and securing stable factories, than with addressing the root problems. Chief among these are basic human rights.

Businesses with the strength of Nike or Adidas should not participate with factories that skirt ethical and legal codes. But then again, it is not altogether surprising. That is how most retail titans gain tremendous market shares in the first place.

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