Ten years ago, the world’s most famous professional basketball star visited a previously unknown factory in Dongguan, China, to witness firsthand the production of his Air Jordans. After the visit, some workers alleged that the factory had been employing children and was forcing people to work long hours without commensurate pay. Those claims prompted Air Jordans’ parent company, Nike, to audit more than 600 factories over the next two years.
Now thousands of workers are striking at the same factory. Michael Jordan may have since switched allegiances from Chicago to Charlotte, but it seems that not much has changed in China when it comes to labor conditions.
On April 5, workers at the Yue Yuen factory in Dongguan went on strike over what they said were invalid contracts and false pension promises. According to Radio Free Asia, the government attempted to evict the protesters, who were blocking roads in front of the factory. Multiple arrests were made, though RFA did not say how many.
A spokesman for Yue Yuen called the labor dispute a “misunderstanding” on Tuesday and said the factory hopes to resolve the issue by April 14. Nike did not issue a statement, but Adidas said its local supplier is “in talks with local authorities to address workers’ concerns.”
The Taiwanese company Pou Chen Group, which owns this factory, has been in business since 1998 and is the single biggest supplier in China for Nike, Adidas and Reebok. One employee who has been working there since the famous Jordan visit says his supposedly permanent work contract was called invalid by local school administrators—he was trying to use it as proof of employment to enroll his child in the school.
From The Nanfang Insider:
“In addition to cheating workers by using invalid contracts, workers discovered that many of their social insurance schemes were downgraded to temp staff packages. According to the report, the downgrades were not only discovered in one of Yue Yuen’s factories, but several other factories under Yue Yuen as well. Workers had been negotiating with the factory, but nothing fruitful had come of it. It eventually escalated into Saturday’s protests.”
Saturday’s protest blocked the roads for three hours, according to users posting to Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter.
This isn’t the first time workers from the Yue Yuen factory have organized for better labor conditions. In 2011, 7,000 workers went on strike to protest wage cuts and layoffs. A Yue Yuen spokesman at the time said the protest had only a “minor impact, with its business orders expected to remain steady.”
The latest protest is part of a drumbeat of factory strikes in China, led by the iPhone-making Foxconn workers and spreading to employees at other factories that manufacture goods for U.S. companies. Some examples from the past month:
- March 3: More than 1,000 workers strike at an IBM factory in Shenzhen over layoffs
- March 4-5: Foxconn workers in Tianjin strike to protest the company’s failed promise to fulfill subsidies
- March 5: workers at various Pepsi factories across China strike to protest company layoffs and pay/benefit cuts
Despite some efforts by Nike and Apple to improve conditions at their factories, unhappy workers in China are channeling their frustrations into multiple strikes and protests. Some of those strikes are covered by the Western media, and some aren’t. The New York Times, for example, covered the March 3 IBM protest, but no other publication of note picked up on this weekend’s strike.
That—plus the fact that the Yue Yuen factory’s production hasn’t been interrupted by the weekend strike, according to local media—means the striking workers may still have a ways to go before experiencing real change.