SHANGHAI — No resolution has been reached between one of the world’s largest shoe manufacturers and tens of thousands of workers who are on strike over a benefit dispute at the company’s factories in the southern province of Guangdong.

This story first appeared in the April 18, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Taiwanese-owned Yue Yuen Holdings Ltd., which makes shoes for Nike and Adidas along with numerous other global brands, has not responded to interview requests regarding a strike among employees that began in early April and has since intensified into a widespread protest involving at least 30,000 workers in Dongguan, a manufacturing epicenter in southern China. Worker rights groups have said the strike is one of the largest in recent history in the country.

“It is a very complicated situation,” said Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, which has been monitoring the ongoing protests. “It will take time to sort it out.”

Crothall added that the situation is highly politically sensitive in China, where mass protests are banned and workers are not allowed to organize trade unions not approved by the government. A police presence has been ubiquitous in Dongguan since the protests intensified this week, and some protestors at Yue Yuen’s factory have been stopped by police or detained, Crothall said.

Calls to employees resulted in little commentary. Most remarked they feared their phones were being monitored by the government and that if they spoke to foreign journalists they risked losing their jobs. The strike has garnered almost no coverage from domestic media.

When reached by phone, most workers declined to speak. Some said that local non-governmental organizations focusing on labor issues are being monitored by the government, and are banned from reaching out to Yue Yuen’s employees.

Others said that Internet access in the city has been intermittent as perhaps part of an effort by authorities to curtail the spread of news of the strike, particularly on social media, so as to not spark similar disputes at other factories.

In a statement, Adidas said it is “closely monitoring the situation” and “will conduct a proper investigation as soon as the strike is resolved.” A Nike spokesman said, “Nike is aware of and concerned by the events at the Yue Yuen factory in Guangdong. We’re continuing to monitor the dialogue between factory management and the workers, as well as production at the factory.”

While perhaps the scale of the protests at Yue Yuen’s manufacturing base in Dongguan is unprecedented, the strike itself is not new. Increasingly, factory workers are standing up for their rights for numerous reasons. Labor experts say there is a new awareness among blue-collar workers of their legal rights in China, and they are more willing to stand up for them. Also, the labor market is changing. Unlike their parents, young people no longer want to work in factories, which has resulted in a lack of laborers in China’s manufacturing epicenters in the east. Those still willing to take on factory jobs are now negotiating for higher wages and better benefits, and are willing to take a stand if their demands are not met. From June 2011 until the end of 2013, there were nearly 1,200 strikes and protests in China, according to the China Labor Bulletin. Forty percent occurred among factory workers.

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