A strike at a Chinese factory that makes shoes for Nike, Timberland, Kenneth Cole and other popular brands grew on Tuesday to about 5,000 workers who are demanding their employer pay its government-mandated housing fund money. Workers for Stella Shoe Co., based in the southern industrial city of Dongguan, began the strike on Sunday and were joined Tuesday by hundreds more Stella employees from another facility.  

Stella’s website says it makes shoes for the European market and has “sound employees” that “enjoy holiday labor law provisions.” Images posted on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site, show hundreds of workers wearing orange and blue company uniforms gathered around the factory. Some images depict police forces and K-9 units milling around the striking workers.

001 Images taken by striking workers and posted on the Weibo microblogging site show a heavy police presence at a strike by about 5,000 shoemakers in Dongguan city on Tuesday. Photo: Weibo via China Labor Watch

“On the 10th [of March], the local government dispatched a large number of police dogs brought to the facility to pressure workers to return to their jobs,” said Weibo account holder Pansuwei0522, who posted images of the protests.

New York-based China Labor Watch said it confirmed the authenticity of the claims and images separately from a striking Stella employee. The worker, who only wanted her surname Liu published out of concern for reprisal, told the rights group that some workers were attacked by the dogs and were billed $271 for hospital treatment, including rabies shots. Workers say they were hit by cars and injured as they blocked the front of the factory.  

Factory workers in China tend to be rural migrants who travel long distances for city work. Under local labor laws, companies are required to pay into a housing benefit for workers. The striking Stella workers say they haven’t received this pay from their employer, though it’s not clear how many months are owed to them.

“It’s unlikely they would strike over one month worth of back pay,” said Kevin Slaten, China Labor Watch program coordinator. “But right now we don’t know how much the employer owes.”

002 K-9 units were dispatched to the strike. Workers say some were attacked by the dogs and had to seek hospital treatment for bites. Photo: Weibo users via China Labor Watch

Slaten says housing fund payments range from 5 percent to 20 percent of an employee’s average monthly wage. The minimum wage in Dongguan is 1,310 yuan (about $209) a month, though factory workers tend to make significantly more. Last year, Yue Yuen Holdings was ordered by the Chinese government to pay tens of millions of dollars in unpaid housing and social insurance contributions to 48,000 employees of its shoe manufacturing business in Dongguan.

Independent collective bargaining is considered a fundamental labor right in many developed countries and by the International Labour Organization. Chinese workers, however, are not allowed to form unions that are independent from the government.