Guangzhou Handbag Workers Claim Victory Through Collective Bargaining
Guangzhou Panyu Simone Handbag Co. Ltd. (“Panyu Simone”) is a South Korean-owned enterprise that established in 1992. Earlier in March this year, more than 1000 workers from the factory went on a nine-day strike to fight for remuneration on pension and other work-related benefits. Throughout the strike, the workers displayed tremendous solidarity and finally forced the employer to respond their demands by means of collective bargaining.
Panyu Simone is a handbag manufacturer that mainly produces and supplies mid to high-end leatherwear for luxury brands such as Michael Kors in China. Before 2012, Panyu Simone was the supplier for Burberry. While Michael Kors is famous for its celebrity clienteles such as former American First Lady Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton, Chinese workers received meagre wages and have to work extra long hours to ensure a basic living. Most workers have worked for over 10 years in the factory, however Panyu Simone have not paid for workers’ entitled pension, housing provident fund and other work-related benefits. Workers thus started a strike in March to fight for their rights. There are total 1,242 staff in the company, in which over 1,000 frontline workers, except management staff, joined the strike.
Negotiation between workers' representatives and management
In January 2018, two Panyu Simone workers filed complaints of the company’s misconducts to the Social Insurance Bureau and Labour Law Enforcement Office. Firstly, their social insurance premiums were underpaid for years - the premiums were calculated by the city’s minimum wages rather than in real wages and were not paid since the commencement of employment. Some were paid since 2001 but some were not paid until 2006. On the other hand, Panyu Simone had never paid workers their entitled housing provident fund and high temperature allowance, although they were required to work in a confined space with high temperature conditions.
Upon acknowledgement of the complaints, the company began to suppress the two workers by refusing them overtime duties on weekdays, later extended such ban to weekends. The factory even sent extortion letters to their families and published their personal information with their identity card details in the factory, accusing them for working carelessly. Undeterred by the suppression, other workers showed their solidarity support by filing their own complaints to the government office, up to 20 to 30 workers at a time.
The workers eventually vented their anger after the Lunar New Year. On the morning of 5 March, a worker posted an open letter next to the punch clock and cover the clock with red paper to urge her fellows to go on strike. Initially, only 200 to 300 workers responded to the appeal while the rest continued to work on the shop-floor. But on the striking workers’ insistence, all workers eventually joined the strike in the afternoon, and hence, raised the curtain on the nine-day strike. Workers requested 13 demands including the remunerations on social insurance, housing provident fund, and high temperature allowance. On the next day, the management threatened the striking workers that they would be dismissed unless they resume work.
On 6 March, Officials from local government and the Municipal Trade Union intervened the strike, while police was sent to cordon off the factory to prohibit public entrance. Later on the evening of 11 March, investigation teams from the Labour Law Enforcement Office and Housing Department were sent to search for the Panyu Simone workers in their housing quarters in the township of Hualong. Although they claimed that such action was to show their care to workers, in fact, they true intention was to harass them and demand them to resume work. The next day (12 March), the management was presented at the shop floor and announced that all workers will be dismissed if absence from work.
Striking workers harrassed by government officials at their homes
Regardless of collusion between the company and government officials in suppressing the strike, the workers were unified and well-coordinated in their actions. Negotiations between 15 workers’ representatives started negotiation with the factory management on 6 March. After several rounds of negotiation, a deal was struck on 14 March with the company agreeing to:
1. Remunerate housing provident fund before December 31 retroactively from the date of employment. If workers retired or resigned before December 31, factory would make a one-off payment;
2. Remunerate social insurance premiums by July 31. If workers retired or resigned before December 31, the factory would make a one-off payment;
3. Compensate the two workers who initiated the strike and retain their positions in the factory.
The result is encouraging especially for old workers who have been working for over 10 to 20 years. However, it is not easy to achieve such result. Not only did the factory management try to split the workers, government officials also attempted to intimidate the worker to stop the strike. Workers and their representatives suffered mental stress during the nine-day strike and some of them have fallen ill because of that. The Panyu Simone’s experience illustrates that both the factory management and related government offices do not recognize collective bargaining as they still believe suppression is the only means to settle labour disputes. Once again, it is through workers’ solidarity and persistence that labour rights can be preserved.