Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Chinese Honda workers blaze a new trail of struggle

Workers at Honda plants in the south of China recently took on the Japanese auto monopoly and won significant improvements in wages.

Like workers in many parts of the country’s socialist market economy, they are having to relearn the basic principles of workplace organisation and struggle.

The main Honda assembly plant is located at Nanhai county, Guangdong province.
Formerly a centre for the production of fish and rice, Nanhai has grown in the space of 20 years to become a major manufacturing centre with a total economy of over 150 billion RMB. And yet wages have remained more or less constant for the last ten years.

The significance of the strike at the assembly plant and two component manufacturing plants is that workers have articulated their independent demands for major wage increases and also for genuine union representation.

In line with the Communist Party’s vision of a “harmonious society” the Honda enterprise union has been led by company managers and limits its role to “providing a platform for discussion between employees and the company”.

During the course of the strike, one leader of the trade union fobbed off workers’ complaints about not doing enough to support their demand for a wage rise by saying “This is a matter between labour and employees. It is inappropriate for the trade union to intervene”.

In the course of a fortnight long strike which began on May 17, workers threw off the misleadership of the official union. On May 31 the union recruited 100 unemployed youth from local villages (in yellow hats below) who physically attacked striking workers who had defied the union on a return to work recommendation.

Hence, a demand for their enterprise unions to be elected by and accountable to the workers emerged as a key demand of the strike.

Most assembly workers had a monthly take home pay of around 1300 RMB (just over 200 Australian dollars) after deductions for the “three insurances and one fund” (old age pension, unemployment and medical insurance and the housing fund). Approximately one third of the workforce was trainees recruited from local vocational colleges. Their wages are only around 900 RMB.

These wages are one twentieth of their American and one twenty-fourth of Japanese counterparts.

The Honda plant was particularly vulnerable to workers’ actions in May. China was Honda’s only growth market in the world, and May was China’s peak sales season. Given that Chinese labour rarely engages in strike action, the company had only built the one assembly plant, so when it stopped so did the production of cars.

The workers eventually won a 24% wage rise – les than what they had sought, but significantly more than the contemptuous initial offer from the profit-hungry corporate bosses of a measly 55 RMB.

They also won a mealy-mouthed apology from the union for the violence directed at strikers and, with the support of a local delegate to the National People’s Congress, the right to elect their own chairperson of the factory union. However, there is yet no right of recall - all they have is the right to have the chair subjected to an annual “vote of confidence” failing which “they will have to improve”.

The three hundred million strong industrial working class of China has a glorious revolutionary history but is having to relearn its content in the course of a new generation’s practical experiences.

Australian workers salute their Chinese comrades and urge them to persevere on the path of struggle against foreign and local exploiters.

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