Chinese shoe factory workers strike over benefits

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - About 5,000 workers have gone on strike at a shoe manufacturer in southern China over benefits, two activists and a worker said, marking one of the biggest work-stoppages in the country in months. The company that owns the factory, Stella International Holdings Ltd, lists Guess? Inc, Michael Kors Holding Ltd, Prada SpA and Burberry Group PLC among its customers. China's slowing economy, rising costs and the spread of social media have driven an increase in strikes. Last year, the number of strikes more than doubled to 1,378 from 656 the year before, according to China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based advocacy group. The strike at Stella's Xing Ang factory in the city of Dongguan started on Sunday with workers unhappy about not receiving housing assistance, said Liu Zai, who added she had not received the funds in eight years at the factory. "We want an explanation. Why haven't they paid this for so many years?" she said by telephone. Liu and two activists said all of the factory's workers, about 5,000 people, were on strike. On Wednesday, most were forced to return to their workplace but were still refusing to work, Liu said. A spokeswoman for Stella International said only "a few hundred" workers had gone on strike, not 5,000. "Discussions are still ongoing, but as of this morning almost all workers have returned to work," the spokeswoman wrote in an email. She said she could not comment on production or customer orders because Stella International was under blackout ahead of its annual results announcement next week. There was no immediate comment from Guess, Burberry or Prada. Calls to Michael Kors went unanswered. The strike comes as China's parliament, the National People's Congress, holds its annual session in Beijing. Premier Li Keqiang told the congress last week the government would "improve the mechanisms for supervising the handling of labor issues and disputes, and ensure the law fully functions as the protector of the rights and interests of anyone in employment". April last year saw China's biggest strike in decades, when about 40,000 employees of Adidas and Nike supplier Yue Yuen went on strike to demand social insurance payments. In 2004, the Xing Ang factory and another run by Stella International in Dongguan saw thousands of workers strike over low wages, long hours and poor quality food, China Labour Watch reported. Several were arrested. (Reporting by John Ruwitch and Alexandra Harney; Editing by Stephen Coates)