The lone security guard could only stand aside helplessly, cowering as an angry crowd of 400 people surged forward, smashing the steel barricades outside the factory in southern China and forcing their way inside.
Some yelling, some crying tears of frustration, they fanned out across the deserted concrete complex, aiming kicks at their boss’s abandoned car. Then they ran through the workshops, offices and dormitories, seeking retribution.
Thirty minutes later, their fury spent, they drifted back out across the trampled barricades, leaving for the last time the place where many of them had spent years of their working lives, carrying the only thing they could plunder: armfuls of shoes.
“What could I do? I was just one old man against a mob,” said 66-year-old security guard Can Donyi. “Of course, I didn’t try to stop them. In any case, they had a right to be angry. I felt sorry for them.”
Two days before, the workers had been busy on the production lines of the Dingfu factory in the town of Houjie, making shoes for shops such as Zara, Nine West and Sam & Libby. Then local government officials marched in and announced that the company was bankrupt.
Penniless and cut off from their homes and families, the migrant workers — owed an average of four months of wages — found themselves shut out as the factory doors were sealed and court notices put up saying the Taiwanese owners were hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
At first, they waited patiently at the factory gates. Then, when it was clear there would be no jobs to return to and no one to help them get back the money they were owed, they took matters into their own hands.
Minutes after storming the factory gates, it became clear that anything of value at Dingfu was gone. The boss had fled China on the day the factory was forced to close, leaving his 4x4 vehicle on the factory forecourt. On the front seat were a staff roster, a pile of lunch receipts and a business magazine.
The factory closure last November was a scenario that has been repeated across southern China, where more than 1,000 shoe factories — about a fifth of the total — have closed down in the past year. The majority were in Houjie, a concrete sprawl on the outskirts of Dongguan known as China’s “Shoe Town.”
“In the past, workers would just swallow all the insults and humiliation. Now they resist,” said Jenny Chan, chief coordinator of the Hong Kong-based pressure group Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior, which investigates factory conditions in southern China.
“They collect money and they gather signatures. They use the shop floors and the dormitories to gather the collective forces to put themselves in better negotiating positions with factory owners and managers,” she said.
Technology has made this possible.
“They use their mobile phones to receive news and send messages,” Chan said “Internet cafes are very important, too. They exchange news about which cities or which factories are recruiting and what they are offering, and that news spreads very quickly.”
As a result, she says, factories are seeing huge turnover rates. In Houjie, some factories have tripled workers’ salaries, but there are still more than 100,000 vacancies.
Outside one factory, a woman sits alone at a small wooden table. Behind her is a large red banner announcing: “Workers wanted. Good rates of pay. Generous overtime allowances.”