Migrant Worker Protests Slow Down in China Denim Capital

Although production was disrupted, denim factories in Xintang say lines are back in operation.

BEIJING — The situation has calmed in Xintang, China’s denim production capital, after it was rocked by several days of unrest last week when migrant workers took to the streets to protest maltreatment of fellow migrants. 

This story first appeared in the June 20, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

China’s state-run media reported that two dozen people have been arrested in connection with the protests, in which thousands took to the streets. Photos from the scene that were posted online show protesters sparring with armed security forces, but officials say no one was hurt.

The protests began when rumors spread online that security agents had killed a street vendor and manhandled his pregnant wife, but officials say the rumors were largely untrue.

The situation underscored ongoing and increasing tensions in Guangzhou, the heart of China’s manufacturing zone, and the millions of migrant workers who travel there each year for jobs far from home. Initial reports said the dispute might have escalated over labor conditions. But experts say the core issue has more to do with broader social problems and a growing wealth gap between locals and migrants who have limited rights in the Chinese system.

“It’s not so much about labor conditions; it’s more about the surrounding elements,” said Geoffrey Crothall, communications director for the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin.

Xintang, a smaller city within Guangzhou, has long been known as the heart of China’s denim production industry. Several thousand factories there produce nearly all of China’s denim, and by extension, a significant share of denim made for the rest of the world.

Denim factory bosses said the protests had disrupted production for several days, but they believe things will return to normal soon. Manufacturing lines are back in operation and employees are back to work.

“We stopped working the day when the situation was at its worst (last Saturday), and we stopped overnight work for several days,” said Wu Sheng, sales manager for a large denim factory in Xintang.

“We work as normal now and there are many police on the street,” Wu added.

Ding Xiao, another denim factory representative, said the actual impact on production was limited. “They just created trouble on the street and didn’t get into factories,” he said.

Chinese citizens are tied to the cities of their birth by a household registration system that makes it difficult to get basic benefits like health care and education for their children when they move for work. Yet the country’s factories are largely fueled by millions of migrant workers who live vastly different and more difficult lives than the locals in Guangzhou.

Ding said tensions had been building for a long time in Xintang, in particular, where migrants are penalized with strict policies and fines that don’t apply to locals.

Wu said he hopes labor unions and government officials will address these basic issues, which would create a more stable situation both for companies and workers.

“This is what we are looking forward to. Then there will be a channel for the workers to express their needs, and their demands will be heard by the government,” said Wu. “The riot this time is not a small issue. It must have an effect on local officials and they should think about it.”