SHENZHEN, China (AFP) – Faced with lay-offs and wage cuts as falling demand in the West hits the country's vast manufacturing sector, the workers who have powered China's breakneck growth are refusing to go quietly.
Over the past month, thousands of factory workers in China's southern manufacturing heartlands have wrested concessions from employers facing shrinking exports and rising costs in a wave of labour unrest.
In the southern boomtown of Shenzhen, workers recently gathered at the office of labour rights organisation Little Bird to debate a possible strike at a factory that employs them to demand better overtime pay and compensation.
"We have never experienced this situation. We want to learn the different methods for protecting our rights," said Ran Lin, 30, who spends 11 hours a day, six days a week testing thousands of circuit boards on an assembly line.
Ran, who supplements his 2,000 yuan ($315) monthly wage by working overtime at the Hong Kong-invested Yong Jie Electronics factory, said the company had reduced perks such as meals and housing, even as the cost of living rose.
"We made contributions to economic development. We gave so much to the company. I hope they can give us suitable compensation," said Ran.
As a manufacturing slowdown forces employers to cut back on benefits and lay off staff, workers are reaching out to grassroots groups such as Little Bird and even government-linked agencies that offer legal advice and address complaints.
"Workers' recognition of protecting their rights has increased. They have learned to unify," said Wei Wei, founder of Little Bird.
Wei said the dense concentration of factories in China's southern province of Guangdong had helped spread news of past strikes, which has emboldened workers in a recent wave of labour conflicts.
Thousands of workers in Guangdong and elsewhere downed tools last month in a series of strikes as factories hit by slowing demand in the United States and Europe passed the pressure of rising costs and falling orders on to staff.
China's manufacturing activity contracted in November for the first time in 33 months, as the export-led economic growth moderated to 9.1 percent in the third quarter from 9.5 percent in the previous quarter due to falling demand.
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