TAIPEI, May 10, 2020, SCMP. A group of 150 Chinese workers believe the world’s largest maker of trainers used the coronavirus as an excuse to fire them, having helped Taiwanese firm Pou Chen successfully expand its production into Vietnam for more than a decade, South China Morning Post reported.
Pou Chen, which makes footwear for the likes of Nike and Adidas, informed the group in late April that they would no longer be needed as they were unable to return to Vietnam from their hometowns in China due to the coronavirus lockdowns.
“We believe we contributed greatly to the firm’s relocation process, copying the production line management experience and successful model of China’s factories to Vietnamese factories,” said Dave Zhang, who started working for Pou Chen in Vietnam in 2003.
“Now, when the factories over there have matured, and there is a higher automation level in production, our value has faded in the management’s eyes and we got laid off, in the name of the coronavirus pandemic.”
The group claims the firm began to fire Chinese employees several years ago, with the total number dropping from over 1,000 at its peak to around 400 last year.
“We 150 employees were the first batch of Chinese employees to be laid off this year. We are all pessimistic and expect more will be cut,” added Zhang.
In its email on April 27, Pou Chen said it was forced to terminate the contracts of the Chinese employees across five of its factories due to an unprecedented decline in orders and financial losses.
The Chinese employees, many of whom have been working for the shoemaker for decades, said the compensation offered was unfair and below the levels required by labour law in both Vietnam and China.
In a further statement to the South China Morning Post, Pou Chen stood by the move as the coronavirus pandemic had reduced demand for footwear products and so required an “adjustment of manpower.”
“[The dismissals were] in accordance with the relevant labour laws of the country of employment … and employee labour contracts,” added the statement from Pou Chen, which employs around 350,000 people worldwide.
Company data showed Pou Chen’s first quarter revenues tumbled 22.4 per cent year-on-year to NT$59.46 billion (US$1.99 billion), the weakest in six years.
With the likes of Nike and Adidas closing retail stores around the world to comply with social distancing requirements, analysts also said orders plummeted 50 per cent in the second quarter, although the company declined to comment on the media reports.
Last month, the company was also mulling pay cuts and furloughs that would affect 3,000 employees in Taiwan and officials based in its overseas factories, according to the Taipei Times.
Andy Zeng, who had worked for the firm since 1995, said the group were “very upset” when they received the news last month as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic began to reverberate around the world, disrupting global value chains.
“Most of us joined Pou Chen in the 1990s when we were in our late teens or early 20s, when the Taiwan-invested company started investing and setting up factories in mainland China. Now more than two decades have passed,” he said.
Zeng was among the first generation of skilled workers in China as Pou Chen developed rapidly, enjoying the benefits of cheap labour, although the workers themselves were rewarded with regular pay rises.
“I worked at the Dongguan branch of Pou Chen for 11 years from 1995.” Zeng added “In the 1990s and early 2000s, the company expanded rapidly in Dongguan with a growing number of large orders, and every worker had to work hard around the clock. I remember I earned 300 yuan (US$42) a month in 1995, and my monthly salary rose to 1,000 yuan (US$141) in 1998.”
Zeng’s salary eventually rose to over 3,000 yuan in 2005 as China’s economy boomed, leading Pou Chen to seek alternative production sites in Vietnam and Indonesia where labour and land were even cheaper. However, in the early 2000s, the new locations lacked skilled shoe manufacturing workers like Zeng.
“The company needed a group of skilled Chinese workers to go to its new factories in Vietnam. I said yes because I thought it was a good opportunity to see the outside world and the offer of US$700 per month was not bad.” Zeng said.
“We actively cooperated with their plans. Over the past decade, we have been away from our families and hometowns, and followed the company’s strategy to work hard in Vietnam.
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“In 2005, the company sent me to its newly-built factory in Vietnam. This year was my 14th year in Dong Nai in Vietnam. I have witnessed the company’s production capacity in Vietnam become larger and larger. When I arrived, there were only a few production lines, and now there are at least dozens of them, employing more than 10,000 workers in each factory.”
According to a report in the Taipei Times on April 14, citing both Reuters and Bloomberg, Pou Chen was ordered to temporarily shut down one of its units in Vietnam over coronavirus concerns, according to Vietnamese state media.
The company was forced to suspend production for two days after failing to meet local rules on social distancing, Tuoi Tre newspaper reported.
“We Chinese employees actually were pathfinders for the company’s relocation from China to Vietnam,” said Zhang, who was in charge of a 1,700-worker factory producing 1.7 million shoe soles per month.
“We were sent to resolve any ‘bottlenecks’ in the production lines that were slowing down the rest of the plant, because during the launch of every new production line, Vietnamese workers would strike and get into disputes. As far as I know, there were over a thousand Chinese employees managing various aspects of the production lines in the company’s Vietnamese factories.
“In fact, what our Chinese employees have done in Vietnam for more than a decade can be said to be very simple but very difficult. That is to teach Vietnamese workers our experience of working on a production line, improve the productivity of the Vietnamese workers, and help the factories become localised.”
Overall, Pou Chen says it produces more than 300 million pairs of shoes per year, accounting for around 20 per cent of the combined wholesale value of the global branded athletic and casual footwear market.
“Because of cultural shock and great pressure to expedite orders, Vietnamese workers were not used to the management style of Taiwan factories,” Zhang added.
“Many of our Chinese employees were beaten by Vietnamese workers [due to cultural differences about work]. During anti-China protests in Vietnam, we were still under great pressure to keep the local production lines operating.”