We will not work for a bowl of rice! - Report of Chung Hong workers

chung-konfa-maly.resizedThe union committee of Inicjatywa Pracownicza (IP, Workers' Initiative) at Chung Hong Electronics factory in the Kobierzyce sub-zone of Tarnobrzeg Special Economic Zone, Poland, has already been existing for half a year. Chung Hong Electronics is a Chinese subcontractor company producing TV motherboards for LG.

The union was founded in reaction to the exploitation and worsening of working conditions in the plant: low wages, temporary and flexible contracts, intimidation of workers, long working hours (6 days a week). During periods of increased production (in autumn and spring), temporary workers make up 50 percent of the production staff. The employer uses the cheap labor force to raise his profits and crush workers' solidarity. Bonuses that were previously given to workers are not paid anymore, social fund that were paid to workers before were suspended, and the transport of employees to and from the plant was terminated. Most people working for Chung Hong commute to work from smaller towns and cities in the south of Lower Silesia – like Nowa Ruda and Wałbrzych – so they often spend nearly half a day on commuting. That is why free transport provided by the employer became one of the workers' demands.

The process of building the union structure in the factory was difficult and showed how many obstacles workers' collective actions meet in their struggle against a factory of global capital. Labor-intensive production and flexible employment conditions are characteristics of these global factories. Our problems in organizing are related with: the work regime on the production line, the fact that workers have to commute for long hours, and the shift system. We had to organize all formal meetings and union elections just before work (workers were coming to the factory about 40 minutes before starting their work) or on Sundays, the only day when there is no production.

During the formation of our union structure we decided that our members should stay anonymous to the boss, especially in order to protect workers on temporary and precarious contracts. The fact that they did stay anonymous during the time when we were permanently refused to set up an information board in the factory, prevented the spreading of information about our activity. This also caused serious problems regarding formal issues, such as meetings and strategy planning. In order to spread the information we distributed leaflets and exchange text messages. Still, the number of union members grew steadily – starting from a dozen workers, first reaching 40 people, then rising to 80 people (now we are 73). In addition, the ignorance shown by the factory management regarding the will and subjectivity of the employees worked in our favor.

The plant has already been existing for five years but has never seen a significant workers' rebellion. Management, therefore, thought it was dealing with a fully obedient and subordinate labor force, and it did not expect our activities and the possibilities of resistance at all. The fact that we are the first trade union in the factory also gives us an advantage, since according to Polish labor law the first union is automatically representing the whole labor force. This meant more room for maneuver. Having only a dozen members at first who have agreed to sign in and start activity, we could still act immediately on behalf of all employees and become a collective voice for the whole crew.

The initial strategy that we chose was to demand basic instruments for running our activity. With the help of the IP national committee and other IP activists we were able to plan the first steps in the factory. The employer, however, tried to delay everything and started an exchange of letters. When the management had to accept the fact that we set up the union (initially they threatened us with closure of the factory), it immediately consulted lawyers who are part of a global corporation. However, in Poland they operate mainly in the Special Economic Zones and specialize in consulting services for employers on the tax and labor laws. Counting on a lack of experience as unionists, incompetence and lack of legal qualifications on our side, the employer stressed that our structure is not legal in almost every letter, relying on the various loopholes. Clever and complicated letters were supposed to keep us quiet and to pacify us: the employer wrote to us about his "willingness to cooperate with the union" and at the same time he stressed that there is no ground for our requests, and he demanded that we give him the names of all union members.

In addition, we were intimidated: the smallest lack of subordination could be ground for reprimand or disciplinary dismissal. After all our letters demanding negotiations the employer tried to delay the process, claiming that any response from his side must first be verified by the corporation corporation – in China! Furthermore, immediately after the union section was founded and had to give the names of the shop-stewards, all of them were given personal supervision – to each of them one Chinese worker was assigned, and they had to write additional reports, so that they had no time for union activity. During one of the night shifts, when supervision is usually not so intense, one member of management sat in the middle of the workshop for eight hours, just near the workplace of one of the activists, and monitored the workers. Workers and unionists were photographed and filmed at work.

As union activists we had to face problems every day. All issues we wanted to get done were undermined in any way possible. For a long time we were not given a copy of the "regulations on work and wages", explanations regarding the social funds and such basic issues as the union information board. This board became a symbol for the way how the collective voice of us workers is silenced. It is difficult to pass on all important news about our struggle to all workers without a place where we could leave all information on what employer and the union is doing. Especially during that phase since the struggle took place not in the production hall but in the offices behind closed doors. A few weeks ago, the employer tried to sign a contract with us demanding a 60 Złoty (15 Euro) monthly fee for putting up the information board, and asking us to consult any content we want to hang up there. Our union rejected this, and it will go to the labor court against the employer for obstructing union activity.

The deteriorating conditions of employment and work (the introduction of a 3-month overtime account, which resulted in longer working hours and up to 6 days of work per week; and "obligatory overtime", and the termination of transport to and from the factory for workers), and the continuous obstruction of our activities made us decide to enter a collective dispute. On April 30, 2012, we filed a letter with our demands:

  • restoration of free transport for workers;

  • wage increases and annual wage compensation according to the inflation rate;

  • clear rules of promotion;

  • stop of extension and flexibilization of working time (obligatory overtime) – the overtime hours must be limited and workers can't be forced to do overtime instead of getting a day off within three months;

  • the restoration of the social fund;

  • consultations with the union about the number of people employed by temporary employment agencies;

  • and other issues related to the workplaces and the work schedule.

May and June 2012 may be a hot period in the plant. If the employer does not negotiate or if negotiations do not bring about the changes we expect, then we will organize a strike. And if we support each other and show solidarity during that time our situation will improve. We must decide to fight together and stand up together against exploitation.

On the May 10, 2012, the workers organized a press conference in front of the Chung Hong Electronics factory in Biskupice Podgórne (Kobierzyce Special Economic Zone). They announced to the media that they have entered a collective dispute. Workers held up the banners "We will not work for a bowl of rice!" and "The collective dispute is on". Shortly before the press conference the boss agreed to negotiate, but until now he has not fulfilled any of our demands.

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