HONG KONG, April 15 (UPI) -- Worker unrest across China's northern "rust belt" has spread to Beijing, and some of the country's southern cities and rights groups say the protests show no signs of abating and in some cases have become routine.
"If anything, the protests are becoming normal; they are a part of daily life now," China labor-rights advocate Han Dongfang told United Press International.
"Then that becomes a problem because when you make waves, people listen, but when demonstrating becomes part of the status quo, then nothing happens."
Last month, workers in China's once-rich oil-producing north began voicing their discontent with poor pension plans and inadequate medical coverage. Thousands of laid-off oil workers began their protest in the northeastern city of Daqing on March 1 when they gathered outside the oilfield's administrative offices to demonstrate against their pensions and severance pay, nothing new to rights groups except for the sheer size of the protests.
"There is a long history of labor disputes in China and the existence of an active labor movement is not new," said Dominique Muller of Amnesty International's Regional Pacific Office in Hong Kong.
"There have been several attempts for over a decade to create independent trade unions to give an independent voice to the needs and problems of workers," Muller said. "All of these have been short-lived and repressed, and their leaders imprisoned."
The Daqing demonstrations, numbering on some days up to 50,000 people according to Han, made headlines. And many China observers saw what they had predicted would occur as the country moved toward modernization and foreign investment and away from inefficient state-owned and -run enterprises.
As China dumps its old patterns of employment and reforms to a market economy, workers get lost in the shuffle.
In Beijing, farmers to factory workers have staged small protests in recent weeks, all citing pension plans and medical services among their grievances. Many say the longer reforms take the more unrest will occur. They say that it would be better for all to speed up reforms in order to retrain and place the unemployed quickly into jobs avoiding discontent and joblessness altogether.
The Daqing oilfield is part of the state-run company PetroChina, one of China's largest petroleum companies. Han said more than 80,000 workers from the oilfield had lost their jobs in recent years and that employees were increasingly upset over benefits.
"Their strategy is to go in every day, gather in front of the offices and then go home in the afternoon," Han said. "They want to keep up the pressure."
Han's publication, the China Labor Bulletin, reported that when oil workers from Xinjiang, Shengdi and Liaohe heard about the protests in Daqing, they staged their own demonstrations in a show of solidarity.
Later in March, more than 30,000 workers from 20 crumbling state-owned factories in the northeast surrounded government buildings in Lioayang city, Lioaning province, to protest non-payment. They also accused their factory leaders of bribery and corruption and were angry that their needs had gone ignored.
The authorities, worried by workers joining ranks from so many different companies, asked to speak to representatives of the workers, but fearing reprisals, the labor leaders decided to keep low profiles.
This didn't deter the authorities, who arrested four of the workers' representatives and another who has not yet been identified. Initially there were promises that the leaders would be freed if the protests were quieted, but the releases never transpired.
"Some protests have been met with excessive use of force by police, and many protesters have been detained," Amnesty's Muller said. "Often such demonstrations go unreported as the local authorities attempt to conceal the severity or extent of the protests," she said. "Protests are often forcibly repressed by public security personnel, and labor activists, workers' leaders and those who appeared to be outspoken face detention and imprisonment."
The Daqing protests coupled with the demonstrations in Liaoyang are thought to be a new wave of discontent. Some said they believed the demonstrating workers in Daqing inspired the Liaoyang protests.
Earlier this month former workers in the southern provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong blocked roads and clashed with security guards protesting over back pay and pension funds.
Rights groups said the factories in the south had fallen into financial difficulties and were paying their workers a portion of their salaries. Hundreds of factory workers who complained they hadn't been paid in months filed a complaint with the local labor bureau and said they were considering filing a lawsuit against the U.S. company Wal-Mart after the retail chain cancelled a contract with their employer if the local bureau failed to meet their demands.
Labor activist Han said worker unrest in southern industrial cities in the south is commonplace. "Lots of people tell me if you can be patient and sit in front of the Shenzhen Labor Bureau for a day, you'll see at least 10 cases. This sort of thing is always happening but Daqing surprised everyone because it happened so suddenly," he said.