Forget walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Why not just imagine what it’s like to be one of the people who literally makes your shoes? Evidently, the conditions are rough: an estimated 30,000 shoe factory workers are currently on strike in China.
For the past two weeks, workers at Yue Yuen, the largest sneaker manufacturer in the world, have gone on strike, effectively shutting down at least seven of the company’s ten Chinese factories. The strike could have a massive economic impact considering that Yue Yuen produces shoes for Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Reebok, Timberland and Asics, among others. Since the beginning of 2013, Yue Yuen has manufactured more than 300 million pairs of shoes.
The main dispute seems to center around social security benefits that the company is obligated to pay for, but has instead secretly cut costs by not actually doing so. Strikers have also demanded that the company provide the meals and housing that they were promised. Generally, workers in these factories are housed in on-site dormitories, but Yue Yuen’s employees allege that they are not actually receiving these accommodations for free.
Details on the strike are far from plentiful given what appears to be suppression by the local government and media. Tidbits and photos have emerged on social media, however, providing clues. The Associated Press also tracked down one striking employee, Cui Tiangang, who was willing to speak on the record.
Tiangang, who normally glues the rubber soles on shoes, said he was compelled to participate in the labor strike after an on-the-job injury proved Yue Yuen’s willful negligence. Though Tiangang had expected to receive medical care through his workplace, he learned the hard way that the company had not actually been paying for the legally mandated insurance that would have covered him.
Despite the fact that the company has been caught breaking the government’s own lax rules, authorities seem to have automatically sided with big business on this issue. Hundreds of police officers have surrounded the factories holding riot gear to intimidate the strikers.
Although labor strikes are becoming increasingly common in China thanks to notoriously poor conditions, the current shoe factory actions are considered the largest in some time. Retirement savings – or more specifically the lack there of – has become an especially contentious issue. In recent years, Chinese workers have objected to working long hours for decades and still not having sufficient funds to retire in their old age.
Sadly, Yue Yuen is hardly alone in stiffing their workers of required insurance benefits. China Labor Watch, an independent group that investigates labor violations, has found more than 400 factories in the country that don’t pay for the insurance and retirement benefits they are required to purchase.