BEIJING — Labor disputes continue to plague China’s manufacturing sector, escalating in recent months as the country’s economic growth slows, and as wage and material costs continue to rise, leaving manufacturers little choice but to either shutter operations completely or move to other regions where production is cheaper.
In April, conditions in China’s manufacturing sector continued to deteriorate. New data released from HSBC showed that last month’s purchasing managers index, or PMI, an indicator of operating conditions in the manufacturing economy, came in at 48.9. Figures below 50 indicate contraction in manufacturing. HSBC said weak domestic demand was the main cause of contraction in April, with new orders declining at the strongest pace for a year.
In a research note published Monday, a HSBC economist said “further job cuts and reduced purchasing activity suggest that the sector may struggle to expand in the near-term.”
For the first four months of 2015, there were more than 800 labor disputes in China, compared to more than 250 during the same period last year, according to China Labour Bulletin, a nonprofit in Hong Kong. The growing number of disputes prompted China’s top leadership to issue a policy paper in March that pointed to growing concern about large-scale labor protests at factories that, if not quickly quelled, could disrupt shipments for both domestic and international companies.
While the government paper lacked concrete directives, it advised local governments to pay more attention to labor unrest as well as the growing social inequality that is partly fueling it. In many of the metropolitan areas where manufacturing hubs are located, rising housing and other costs are often unaffordable for the millions of workers who relocate there for jobs, leading workforces to protest for higher salaries and other benefits.
“Over the last year or so, during the economic slowdown, we have seen a lot of labor disputes come to the fore, particularly because of factories closing down or businesses going through mergers and acquisitions,” Geoffrey Crothall, communications director of China Labour Bulletin, said. “A lot of long dormant issues in labor relations are coming to the surface, particularly issues related to social security, health insurance and pensions.”
While strikes are happening across manufacturing sectors, it appears that the hardest hit are low-end manufacturers, such as textile and footwear makers, which are continually coping with squeezed margins and sometimes are the most impacted by even modest economic changes, both in terms of domestic demand and the global export market.
In March, thousands of workers went on strike at the Taiwanese-owned Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings Ltd.’s facilities in Dongguan, which makes shoes for Adidas AG and Nike, among other global brands, over concerns they would not receive wages and other benefits due to a restructuring plan. In an e-mail, a Yue Yuen spokesman said operations have returned to normal.
Factory restructuring, including moving some manufacturing overseas; the closing of facilities for cost-saving purposes, or mergers and acquisitions have been a main cause of unrest. Labor experts say workers are often uninformed of the changes and strike out of concern they will not receive unpaid wages and benefits or will simply lose their jobs.
Last spring, Yue Yuen experienced one of the largest strikes in recent Chinese history as workers waged protests over benefit packages. The 2014 strike interrupted production for Adidas; however, an Adidas spokeswoman said this year’s unrest did not impact orders.
Workers also went on strike in March in Dongguan at factories of the Hong Kong-listed Stella International Holdings, a footwear-maker for brands ranging from Nine West and Timberland to Michael Kors and Kenneth Cole. Workers were striking over social benefits.
In an e-mail, a Stella International spokesperson confirmed the strike took place but that “at its peak, it involved no more than a few hundred workers.”
“It had no impact on production,” the spokesperson said. “The strike arose as a result of a misunderstanding regarding housing allowances, which was quickly settled amicably. We have strengthened communication channels with our workers and the local government to help ensure that similar misunderstandings are avoided in the future.”
China has passed several landmark labor laws in recent years guaranteeing workers’ health care and other benefits. These laws are enforced in varying degrees at the local level. But, combined with worsening macro factors as well as a younger, tech-savvy workforce who are more educated about and more willing to stand up for their rights, they’ve helped create a recipe for unrest.
The younger generations of workers “are more technologically savvy, and they have different expectations for their lives,” said Kevin Slaten, program coordinator for the New York-based China Labor Watch. “They are more willing to struggle and stand up for their rights.”
Another reason workers are taking to the streets is that China has no independent labor unions. The government’s All-China Federation Trade Unions often sides with employers in labor disputes, leading employees to take matters into their own hands. Recently, though, there have been signs of reform. In Guangdong Province, new regulations allow workers to engage in collective bargaining via their own unions organized within companies. These unions, though, operate under the supervision of local chapters of the ACFTU, and labor experts say few employees have, so far, participated in electing representatives to negotiate on their behalf, instead of striking.
What all this means for foreign companies sourcing from China or with their own operations in the country is that the situation is growing murkier. Rising costs have already made China less viable in some manufacturing sectors, particularly lower-end goods like textiles and footwear. With more labor incidences happening in these sectors, companies are being forced to diversify suppliers, source from other countries or from China’s interior, where, according to one executive with a global sourcing company for textiles and apparel, it is cheaper and labor standards are considerably poorer than in coastal areas.
“You can still get away with a lot in China, especially in the interior,” said the executive, who requested anonymity, adding it is now requisite any multinational company sourcing from China to assess the financial stability of suppliers and their adherence to labor laws or they could face a problem. “If you compare factories in Bangladesh or countries where production is cheaper, the level of compliance is far higher than in China.”
Companies sourcing from China may also find it tougher to squeeze suppliers for the cheapest products and fast delivery times, particularly if local governments and the country’s government-backed labor union become more involved in ensuring manufacturers pay workers fairly.
“The drive to lower prices in China may be coming to an end,” said Munir Mashooqullah, president of sourcing agent Synergies Worldwide. “Because of the increase in wages and social benefits, which is leading to factories unable to make payments on time, which is leading to labor unrest.”
Mashooqullah said companies sourcing textiles and apparel from China now must divide the country into two regions — coastal and interior. In coastal areas, companies can source more high-quality products but with a higher price. In the interior, pricing is lower but quality materials may be more difficult to procure, he said.
Foreign companies sourcing from China “need to be more cautious everywhere today,” he said. “Because there is just large-scale awareness of labor rights in the apparel sector, and in China, they need to be aware of who they are working with, the financial stability of the factory and that they are adhering to the fundamental obligations toward workers.”