On Tuesday, more than 10,000 workers at Chinese shoemaking factory that produces brands like Adidas and Nike staged a massive protest to dispute their benefits.
The Taiwanese-owned company, Yue Yuen Industrial, employs over 60,000 workers in the southern province of Guangdong. The factory produces sneakers for several major Western brands including Reebok, New Balance, Asics and Timberland, as well as Adidas and Nike. The parent company also owns shoemaking facilities in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mexico and the U.S. In the fifteen months that concluded in December 2013, the company manufactured 323 million pairs of shoes.
The striking workers claim that management has reneged on their promises to pay full social security benefits and to provide stipends for housing costs. According to China Labor Watch, the strikes began on April 5 and have since snowballed into a sprawling demonstration of thousands. Some workers reported that only two or three out of ten plants remain in operation.
China’s vast shoemaking industry has been under tremendous pressure ever since a factory fire in January in the Wenling province that killed sixteen people drew attention to long-brewing labor grievances in the sector. The fire at the Taizhhou Dadong factory on January 14 killed six men and ten women, subsequently highlighting China’s woeful factory safety conditions. In the aftermath of the disaster, city officials inspected its more than 6,000 factories and found a majority of them to be sorely lacking adequate safety measures. Most were overcrowded, many lacked fire exits and few had any fire extinguishers.
A spokesperson for the Wenling government reported that 4,559 shoe factories have been closed down since the fire, and at least 230 factory owners have been arrested and another 184 detained for questioning.
According to some reports, the local police officials have begun to organize a response to the protests in Guangdong, worried that the enormous crowds would devolve into violence. Hundreds of police officers were dispatched to the scene.