GUANGZHOU, China — For nearly seven years, Li Wei rose before dawn for his 10-hour shift at the steel plant, returning home each night soaked in sweat, the clank of heavy machinery still ringing in his ears. But last month, the 31-year-old welder stood outside the plant with hundreds of co-workers, picketing against pay cuts and singing patriotic battle hymns.
Within a week, the authorities declared their strike illegal, threatening fines and imprisonment. The police descended on the plant by the hundreds, tearing down signs and ordering the protesters to go back to work. “I’ve sacrificed my life for this company,” Mr. Li told officers as they sought to disperse the workers. “How can you do this?”
As China’s economy slows after more than two decades of breakneck growth, strikes and labor protests have erupted across the country. Factories, mines and other businesses are withholding wages and benefits, laying off staff or shutting down altogether. Worried about their prospects in a gloomy job market, workers are fighting back with unusual ferocity.
Last week, hundreds if not thousands of angry employees of the state-owned Longmay Mining Group, the biggest coal company in northeastern China, staged one of the most politically daring protests over unpaid salaries yet, denouncing the provincial governor as he and other senior leaders gathered for an annual meeting in Beijing.
China Labor Bulletin, a labor rights group based in Hong Kong, recorded more than 2,700 strikes and protests last year, more than double the number in 2014. The strife appears to have intensified in recent months, with more than 500 protests in January alone.
Most demonstrations have refrained from political attacks and focused on grievances such as wage arrears, unpaid benefits like pension contributions and unsafe working conditions.
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