03/15/2016, 19.03
CHINA

Chinese steel workers the striking miners

In Heilongjiang province, thousands of miners are off the job to demand back pay. In Shanxi, workers are threatening legal action against employers. For now, the central government is standing by and watching things unfold, but a massive crackdown is possible. Millions of jobs are at risk.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – More labour unrest over overdue salaries is taking place in China. In Shanxi and Jilin, workers have joined miners in Heilongjiang miners to demand back wages and assurances about the future of their jobs.

In addition to corrupt management, the target of labour protest is the government’s plan to downsize heavy industry.

Thousands of miners in China’s northern province went out on strike since last week. Although demonstrations are smaller after Heilongjiang Governor Lu Hao announced that overdue wages would paid “shortly, many still remain in the street with their families.

In Shuangyashan, on the Russian border, armed police are patrolling the area, whilst eyewitnesses told the South China Morning Post that they saw miners being taken away by the police

Workers at the Tonghua Iron and Steel in Jilin also staged a protest demanding overdue salary.

In Shuangyashan, local authorities issued a statement vowing to “strike firmly” against unrest, such as “blocking state railway lines, disrupting production activities, organising joint actions and picking quarrels”. For now though, they appear determined to let things run their course.

Some analysts, however, point out that the rope should not be pulled too tight. A massive crackdown is also possible. And overdue salaries are not the only issue fuelling the unrest.

In his opening statement at this year’s National People’s Congress, which will ratify the new five-year plan, Prime Minister Li Keqiang announced the restructuring of state enterprises, which involves the loss of at least two million jobs (which could become six, according to some international analysts).

Subsidies to the steel and coal industries cost China’s central government some US$ 15.3 billion a year. To reach its goal, Beijing wants poor regions to pitch in; in exchange, it is offering workers retraining courses and new jobs in their own province.

China has more or less 150,000 state-owned companies employing 30 million people. Many of these are so-called "zombie companies", i.e. companies kept artificially alive by local authorities to prevent GDP losses and local unemployment.

To deal with the situation, Beijing plans to close scores of plants producing steel, coal, aluminium, cement and glass, which are often among the major causes of ground, water, and air pollution.

“They are serious about moving ahead with industrial restructuring [and] closing the most inefficient capacities,” said Tim Condon, chief economist and head of research at ING Asia in Singapore. Pockets of labour unrest were unlikely to deter Beijing from pursuing a leaner, cleaner model of growth, he said.

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