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Tan Jiangying, June 15, 2018
On June 8, messages circulated on social media that truck drivers across China were going on strike on the 10th. This came with a feeling of deja vu, as a similar call for strike had happened on April 25, when crane operators announced a strike for May 1. And, as happened with the crane operators earlier, the truckers’ strike never materialized. The day came, and the strike was called off.
One can guess that the strike leaders were controlled by the stability-maintenance authorities in their locality. But the effect again mirrored that of the canceled crane operators’ strike: upon hearing the call to action, truckers gathered and demonstrated on the days before the appointed time. They hailed from all over the country: Xiushui in Jiangxi province; Hefei, Fuyang; Wuhu in Anhui province; Lianyungang in Jiangsu province; Ningbo in Zhejiang province; Tongren in Guizhou province; Jiading in Shanghai; Wuhan in Hubei; Liaocheng in Shandong; Chengdu in Sichuan; Chongqing; in addition to other cities and provinces.
By announcing strikes on one day but carrying the action earlier, they made “a feint in the east and attacking in the west” [a well known Chinese idiom and military strategy], successfully staging their actions that would otherwise be suppressed.
The truck drivers staged motor protests on the 8th and 9th of June to demand lower gas prices, higher pay for their freight, abolishing excessive road and bridge tolls, and an end to arbitrary fees and fines. They also stood out to oppose the steady monopolization of the logistics industry.
Over a couple days of resistance, the truckers made the whole country aware of their plight. These men practically live in their trucks, leaving their wives and children for a life on the road. They work over 12 hours a day in miserable conditions and subpar safety. Adding to this are their many run-ins with the authorities, who impose upon them fees both legal and illegal. As their income drops, they doggedly maintain their living by accepting ever heavier and riskier loads.
And it’s not just the drivers. Workers throughout the logistics chain toil for next to nothing, even with the exorbitant rates suppliers pay for Chinese shipping (over twice the price of American rates). The costs are passed on to the consumers, but where does the money end up?
Take the Beijing-Xi’an line as an example: a round trip costs about 21,500 yuan, of which 14,500 yuan covers gas. The rest goes to the five-day costs of living, maintenance work and parts, annual registration and vehicle inspection fees, insurance, and various fines one can expect to be slapped with by the authorities. In the end, there is not much left for the truck owners and/or the drivers to make a profit or earn a decent wage.
The root cause of the truckers’ conditions stem from the government’s monopolization of the logistic industry’s lifeblood — fuel and highways — which feeds rent-seeking behavior on the part of the transport police and highway administration. And then there is the immediate factor in the outbreak of the truckers’ strike: the imbalance and inequality of capital and labor within the logistics sector.
China boasts a fleet of about 15 million trucks demanding two drivers each, making around 30 million truckers across the country. Some own the vehicles they drive; others rent trucks, and others don’t personally drive anymore and provide their trucks to the second group. Most drivers are renters. The supply side of the logistics sector is diverse, as is the demand side — the enterprises and goods owners. This plurality of supply and demand once made for an essentially free arena of competition, but recent and sudden shifts in the industry have led to the rise of monopolies.
The shift came with the merger of two logistics giants — Yunmanman [满运软件科技有限公司] of Jiangsu Province and Guiyang’s Truck Alliance, Inc. [货车帮科技有限公司] — to form the Manbang Group. Yunmanman, established in 2013, was the first logistics company in China to incorporate cloud computing, big data, and AI technologies in its platform. It employs four million drivers and owns one million trucks in 315 cities across the country. The comparably-sized Truck Alliance, Inc. boasts a formidable nationwide data infrastructure. It provides comprehensive service for the logistics network across 4.5 million trucks, and works with 88,000 supply partners.
Following the merger, CEO and board chairman Wang Gang (王刚) of Didi Chuxing, CEO Luo Peng (罗鹏) of Truck Alliance, Inc, and Zhang Hui (张晖) of Yunmanman became joint directors of the new Manbang Group. The original companies have remained distinct entities with their own brands, but they now work in tandem to dominate the industry.
Data from Manbang indicates that 5.2 of 7 million mainline fleet trucks in China are now registered with the conglomerate; and around 125 of the nation’s 150 logistics companies are Manbang affiliates. Every day 18.28 billion tons of freight is moved around the country, of which Manbang handles 13.59 billion.
On April 24, 2018, the Manbang Group carried out its first round of financing, worth about $1.9 billion. After the merger, its stock value is expected to break $6 billion.
From May 26 to May 29, Manbang made its first post-merger appearance at the China International Big Data Industry Expo 2018 that was held in Guiyang’s International Convention & Convention Center. According to Reuter’s Chinese-language service, “aside from providing a service that matches trucks to goods, Manbang also became the biggest platform for transport vehicles and all-in-one vehicle support covering services like vehicle oil, electronic throttle control (ETC) systems, vehicle replacement, financing, insurance, or site development. This year Manbang Group has seen successful with its online transaction platform, with the value of transactions reaching hundreds of millions of yuan per month.”
The merger of Yunmanman with Trucking Alliance Inc. brought about a fundamental change in industrial relations within the logistics sector. First, Manbang introduced an annual fee of somewhere between 1680 and 3000 yuan directed at the truck drivers and related information service personnel, which forced the hands of many who had already become dependent on the app for their business.
The second and more explosive event occurred on June 4, when the Truck Alliance app implemented a client update that made it impossible to receive information in real time. Job pricing was fully automated, depriving users of the ability to set their own prices. As a part of the new merger, Truck Alliance was blatantly and openly exerting control over its customers with impunity. Suppose a supplier pays Manbang 1000 yuan, then of that sum the driver gets only 800 yuan and Manbang pockets the rest. This situation caused an uproar among vehicle owners, suppliers, drivers, and other industry personnel.
The crux of the matter is that Manbang is a third party service brokerage platform that not only collects an annual service fee for its information, but has reached into the transaction between trucker and supplier and take a cut from it. It’s gone from information provider to hegemon of the logistics industry. It uses its monopoly on supply and demand data to force truck operators and drivers into paying a “transaction commission” outside the normal app service fee. Manbang doesn’t expend any capital or labor to collect this massive and blatantly exploitative profit. Looking at the plans drafted by Manbang’s nine operations departments, it’s clear that it wants to completely have its way with the industry, forcing all other capital investors (vehicle owners) and laborers (truckers) into submission.
This is adding insult to injury for the truck owners and drivers already suffering under the monopolistic business landscape and predatory government authorities. The June 4 client app update was the last straw.
The actions of the truckers across China is remarkable and praiseworthy:
- This is not a sudden outbreak, but the fruits of long-term, built-up resentment. Truckers have exposed the corruption of the logistics industry before, such as when they called for strikes on November 11, 2015, and April 16, 2017. They organized nationwide and local groups on QQ and WeChat, and formed unofficial logistics associations and alliances to begin defending their rights. It can be seen as a nascent truckers’ union.
- This is an industry-wide action following on the heels of crane operators’ protests at the end of April. The strength, effectiveness, and bargaining potential of such collective actions are by no means something that could be achieved by one enterprise alone. Collective actions like group bargaining are the staple in the labor movements of many other countries. It is satisfying to see Chinese workers embark on the labor movement’s righteous path.
- The alliance of truck drivers form as a permanent organized and law-abiding force in the logistic industry. These cooperatives and other labor organizations are necessary to counter huge conglomerates like Manbang and protect small capital investors and truckers. Without camaraderie between the workers, the industry is doomed to be monopolized.
- The government is obligated to guarantee the rights of the workers to assemble and organize. It also has a responsibility to protect disadvantaged groups in the industry and the rights of workers to unionize. Only in this way will competition be fair, and as the industry makes progress as a whole, it will be possible to ensure legal rights and benefits like proper wages, working hours and conditions, and social security.
Tan Jiangying is a labor scholar in China.
Wang Jiangsong, May 7, 2018
On April 25, an open letter from a WeChat group named “Changsha tower crane operator federation” (长沙塔吊联盟) was circulated. It said:
To all hardworking front-line tower crane operators, conductors, and elevator operators, greetings! As construction, crane, and mechanical equipment operators and engineers, in the most dangerous line of work on the construction site, our salary and compensation is severely out of step with the risks we take and the utter indispensability of our work. In the construction industry, the hours we work far exceed those stipulated in the Labor Law, and we have no social security. Yet despite being in the most unsafe work and working the longest hours, our pay is miniscule. In order to trigger a wave of simultaneous strikes among crane operators around the country, in order to protect our basic labor rights and dignity, and gain an equal salary, the Changsha tower crane operator federation has decided to unite, stand-up, and declare that we have the right to basic dignity in our labor and the right to engage in collective bargaining. Thus, we call for a united strike on the eve of International Labor Day of May 1, in Changsha’s May First Square (五一广场), so that we may make our voice known. We welcome and will be grateful for support from all walks of life.
Location: Changsha May First Square
Content: Organize a more robust crane operator federation, make better videos of the demonstration scene than that of crane operators on strike in other provinces, and reiterate our demand for construction labor rights.
Given the kind of activity and the particular nature of the profession involved, we hope that all fellow workers will proactively participate and make our voice known to the whole of society.
Changsha Crane Operator Federation
April 25, 2018
The letter caused an uproar in the WeChat group, and when shared around came along with expressions of concern for the safety of the crane operators. As expected, the following afternoon, one of the workers who posted the message said: “Terrifying. Because I forwarded a post about a worker strike on May 1 yesterday, the Changsha Ministry of State Security collected all possible information about me within a day, including my address, telephone number, work unit and more. Two hours ago they came to my workplace and demanded that I come to the police station and explain myself.” The worker promised to the MSS agents that he would not participate in any of the activities and was then allowed to leave, though he’s now worried that his employer is going to fire him because of it.
Moreover, the event was not limited only to crane tower operators in Changsha, but one that had been called for by various WeChat groups of tower crane operators across the country, making it a national event. On April 26, the spokesman for crane operators in Hainan published a video on Weibo calling on all operators in the province to join the national strike on the morning of May 1, with the demand that their regular salary and overtime wages be increased. “If we don’t strike, who’s going to increase our income?” he asked, adding: “A strike won’t be nationwide without workers in Hainan. Hainan crane operators too are full of passion, so let it burn!” On the same day, crane tower workers in Zigong, Sichuan Province, held a demonstration, their banners demanding wage hikes, or else they’d also join the May 1 strike.
The following day, workers in the following eight cities in eight provinces also held banners and circulated photographs of their protests online: Nanchang in Jiangxi, Tianshui in Gansu, Zhumadian in Henan, Xiantao in Hubei, Qingzhen in Guizhou, Huaian in Jiangsu, Hengyang in Hunan, Xiamen in Fujian.
Over the next three days, workers in at least 13 cities (Wuhan, Shijiazhuang, Yinchuan, Sanmenxia, Luoyang, Lankao, Yuncheng, Zhuzhou, Yueyang, Pingjiang, Dazhou, Zhongshan, Maoming) and elsewhere also held assemblies and shared photos and videos of their protests online. As of April 30, according to a preliminary count, the provinces in which crane operators staged demonstrators, held banners, called slogans with their demands, and shared photos or footage online, include: Hunan, Hubei, Henan, Hebei, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Hainan, Fujian, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangdong, Guangxi, Shanxi, Shandong, Shaanxi — 19 provinces, with protests in between 27 and 30 cities. Participants ranged from dozens to hundreds in each event. This is the first instance of such a large-scale, nationwide, collective action by industrial workers in China for over decades, and may in fact be the first instance of its kind ever.
When May 1 came around, however, China’s crane operators did not formally go on strike. There are three potential explanations for this.
The first is that some places already agreed to the demands to increase wages and overtime pay, while other cities saw those examples and emulated them; the second is that some local governments said they would strictly prohibit any such strike, and the workers were sufficiently cowed as to call off the plan; the third is that the crane operators didn’t want to get mixed up with the ‘May First National Civil Resonance’ (五一全民共振) called for by some overseas activists, which has explicit political objectives. The latter, under the strict control of the authorities, didn’t go anywhere.
Despite that, the genesis of this large scale ‘mass incident’ of crane operators deserves our attention and analysis.
- This is an inevitable development in the evolution of China’s market economy and labor-capital relations
During the first wave of labor mobilization in China from 2010 to 2015, almost all collective worker actions took place at specific companies: for example, with strikes at Carrefour and Walmart. In these cases, though the strikes spanned multiple stores, the number of participants involved was not large, and still the action was limited to that particular chain of stores.
China’s labor movement is bound to follow the trajectory of the broader economy and labor-capital relations, and thus expand from actions in particular companies to actions spanning multiple companies, regions, and even industries. This instance of a simultaneous mobilization of crane tower operators in dozens of cities across the country has every qualification to be considered the beginning of a historical inflection point in labor in China.
Strictly speaking, collective rights defense taking place at one enterprise can only be called a ‘collective labor action,’ and not really a ‘labor movement.’ Only when many workers establish horizontal ties among one another, achieving a cross-enterprise and cross-region network, can it be called a labor movement proper. One of the most effective and powerful forms of organization, allowing a group of geographically distributed workers to unite their forces and coordinate actions in a single organizational structure, is the industry-wide labor federation. This is also why this form is a core component of labor movements in market economies, and the primary vehicle for collective bargaining between labor and capital. The reason for this is that workers in the same occupation, business, or industry, are in the same position vis-a-vis capital, and have identical interests that they demand from the same counterparty, thus their solidarity and unity has the lowest cost. As soon as they unite, they immediately have the power of scale; once they’re successful, they have ongoing efficiencies of scale to maximally resolve the structural problem [of disparate power between capital and individual workers], and the collective bargaining agreements they reach with industry have the power of law in governing labor-capital relations. All this is entirely consistent with the aspirations and demands of freedom, equality, and justice in exchange and contracts in a market economy, and at the same time is the fundamental meaning of a market economic system governed by the law. The responsibility of the state (defined as legislature, administration, and judiciary) is located in the preservation, not the destruction, of the freedom, equality, and justice of this negotiating mechanism between labor and capital.
- The state should rationally treat self-initiated, self-directed, and self-organized collective actions and acknowledge and protect the three rights of labor
The outside world only learned about this collective action by crane operators after the fact, and knew nothing of their internal discussions, contact with one another, organization, and planning before the fact. There is also no information or evidence indicating that outside players (for instance labor NGOs) got involved or played any role in assisting, counselling, guiding, or providing any other form of help. Even less has there been any shadow of ‘hostile foreign forces.’ Thus, we have every reason to understand this sequence of events as a self-initiated, self-directed, and self-organized collective action on the part of crane operators themselves.
If this conclusion is valid, then the mistaken judgement of the relevant organs in the government must be corrected: they believe that collective action by workers are necessarily directed, organized, manipulated, and planned behind-the-scenes by hostile foreign forces or domestic NGOs, and that they’re competing with the Party, government, and official unions for the working class. This is likely one of the primary reasons behind the mass arrests and prison sentences of labor organizers in December 2015, particularly the arrests on December 3. Following the December 3 incident however, instances of collective rights defense by workers did not contract in scale, but after a short lull in fact came back in full force, and as in the case of the crane operator demonstration attained a high water mark. All this abundantly demonstrates that the level of [labor] consciousness and organizational capacity of workers in China has reached a new level, at least in some sectors and regions, and they’re capable of their own collective action without the involvement of outsiders.
In the past, the standard operating procedure for the relevant organs when faced with labor protests — they themselves having failed to do their job and duty of defending the legal rights of workers, then lost the trust of workers — was to find a scapegoat: blame it on the incitement of hostile foreign forces or domestic NGO activists. This was how they passed it off to their own superiors. The shame is that this sort of buck-passing is actually able to deceive the higher-ups, though workers aren’t fooled, and the actual problems facing workers are unchanged. Thus the resentment and rage builds up daily, and the conflicts between labor and capital, and even between labor and the government, become more and more intense. Put it bluntly, the scapegoating that goes on is simply digging the government into a pit.
The experience and norms of market economies tells us that the state should rationally and forthrightly address issues raised by self-initiated, self-directed, and self-organized collective action, and acknowledge and protect the rights of workers to form organizations (freedom of assembly), to engage in collective bargaining (the right to collective dispute resolution), and to strike (the right to industrial action).
- The demonstration by crane operators establishes a model for broader labor and social movements
Crane operators, as the prime movers behind this collective labor action, appear to have come to a clear realization of themselves as a specially-positioned technical worker in the production chain — they have a ‘structural power’ and to a degree are irreplaceable. The crane operators also effectively reached out to and integrated in their efforts crane conductors and elevator operators, upon which they recognized that the interests of the entire construction site and all the workers and jobs on it are related, to a large extent, and in common with their own. From this they could foresee that as long as there is no undefendable attack by an outside force, the natural course of affairs would have it that a construction industry union is formed. This is the only fundamental means of getting at the root of the chaos and problems in the construction industry.
From a broader perspective, it is beneficial not only to workers, but the entire construction industry, society, and the nation. The next direction for the labor movement in China is for workers in each industry and sector to autonomously form their own federations.
There is absolutely no evidence indicating that the collective action on the part of the crane operators had any connection with the ‘national civil resonance’ advocated by overseas democracy activists. In fact, the opposite is the case: just as that event failed to gain much traction, the protests by crane operators appeared all the more remarkable and successful.
It can be said that in contemporary China’s social transition, the democracy movement (referring to the narrow opposition political movements that aim to change China’s political system) should perhaps take a leaf from the book of the labor rights movement. The current stage of the labor movement of course focuses on increasing its economic benefits, and this is the primary reason that they’re able to mobilize and unite a sufficient number of workers and thus gain some small victories, or at least be able to retreat largely unscathed. The political quality and value of the labor movement requires only that individuals with perspicacious judgement look beneath the surface, make their own inferences, and carry it forward.
Wang Jiangsong (王江松) is a labor scholar in China.
Also by Wang Jiangsong:
A Six-day Strike in Shanghai Caused by a $110 Pay Cut – Collective Action by Sanitation Workers in China’s ‘New Era’ of Stability Maintenance
Wang Jiangsong, April 13, 2018
In late March in the Changning district of Shanghai, 3,000 sanitation workers went on strike. Before long, the air was filled with a foul odour as garbage quickly began piling up in the streets. Trash collection is a public service, and the consequence of a strike is not limited to the walls of a factory compound like most industrial actions. In this case, hundreds of thousands of residents, including students, public servants, intellectuals, white collar workers, and entrepreneurs all had their lives disrupted. When they understood the reason for the strike, however, they were sympathetic and supportive of the workers, and took it upon themselves to post pictures and comments on social media (here, here, here). Police were quickly dispatched to the scene; photo and video show clashes between police and workers. After six days, the strike ended. This sudden rights defense incident, taking place in the far more repressive atmosphere that has come to characterize the advent of China’s ‘New Era,’ surprised many observers.
The Origins of the Strike
Shanghai’s sanitation workers are paid the city’s minimum wage of 2,300 yuan (about $366) per month; if they want to earn more, workers have to do overtime. In the past the work schedule was seven days a week, though at the end of last year this was changed to six days. This means that if they want to earn, say, 4,000 yuan a month, they’d need to do a few hours overtime every day, and then pick up another shift on the weekend. After paying into the social security fund, based on an income of 4,000 yuan, they would be left with take home pay of around 3,000 yuan.
Starting April 1, the Shanghai municipal government raised the minimum pay from 2,300 yuan per month of last year to 2,420 yuan, an increase of 120 yuan. On this basis, the overtime of sanitation workers would be 500-600 yuan, making the increase in pay in total around 700.
In March, however, the three companies that control waste management in Changning District decided to scrap the meal subsidies, as well as the early morning and graveyard shift allowances, which came to about 700 yuan per worker. This was, obviously, a significant portion of monthly income for the workers, so they went to the companies and demanded an explanation.
The companies responded that scrapping the morning and late night allowances and meal subsidies didn’t bring the workers’ official income down, and thus the companies didn’t harm the workers. The workers refused to accept this senseless explanation: the waste management companies are paid by government appropriations; if the state has raised the minimum wage of workers, it means the state wants to increase the workers’ income. The companies’ maneuvering meant that they themselves swallowed up the increase in income meant for workers, with the result that there was no change in the workers take home earnings. It was this abuse and insult that led the workers to strike in protest.
For years, whenever a strike took place anywhere in China, the local government immediately went into a high state of vigilance, treated the strike as a ‘mass incident,’ and initiated ‘stability maintenance’ measures. Police are brought in to take control and shut down the demonstration, and there are clashes between police and residents. In this case, the workers’ appeal was met with no reasonable explanation, and the conflict between labor and capital turned into a conflict between labor and the government. This chain of events is seen regularly on the streets of China.
A Macro View of Strikes
Some have asked: China these days is in an era of hyper stability maintenance, and whenever the government identifies buds of unrest they quickly crush them — yet this was a strike involving sanitation workers, in Shanghai of all places, and it went on for six days, so how did this happen?
In fact, there is nothing miraculous about this. Strikes of this scale have been taking place for years, and we could probably enumerate at least a few hundred since 2010.
Examined from a macro perspective, with the depth and penetration of industrialization and the market economy in China today, the conflict between labor and capital has become a structural contradiction, and the most important economic contradiction in the country. China is still not a market economy: it lacks regulations, rule of law, fairness, as well as protections for human rights or the rights and benefits of workers. For these reasons, conflicts between labor and capital are not only widely seen, but they’re also intense and fierce. Sanitation workers have gone on strike before, in the Panyu district of Guangzhou, as well as in the Yuelu district of Changsha, Hunan, among other places. Strikes by workers in other industries — including traffic management and other public industries, as well as manufacturing, construction, and services — have become the most common collective expression of conflict between labor and capital. This sort of conflict has seen spiraling growth in recent years.
Workers are not permitted to have their own, independent union in China. Where there are unions, they’re inevitably a department of the government and exist in name only, not actually playing the role of representing the interests of workers, bargaining on their behalf for better conditions and pay and protecting their rights with the law. This is why when conflict actually breaks out, workers surge forth, immediately going on strike to establish their bargaining position. This method of negotiation, widely adopted by worker groups in recent years, has come to be called “strike first, talk later” (先罢后谈) — a way of forcing the owners of capital to the negotiating table. The standard pattern in countries with market economies, of course, is “talk first, strike later,” because only if negotiations break down do workers feel the need to resort to their ultimate threat and gambit.
The most immediate explanation for why this explosive strike of sanitation workers took place in Shanghai is because there was no collective bargaining or mediating mechanism between capital and labor, in which they could effectively discuss and resolve the outstanding issues.
By the sixth day of the strike, when Changning district workers went back to their jobs, it was, in the first place, because police began arresting people, and the workers didn’t have a close-knit organization and leadership, so were not prepared to resist those kind of body blows; and secondly because the company backed off slightly, changing their policy to only deduct 260 yuan from the shift allowances, rather than the original plan to deduct 560 yuan.
Over the years the pattern around China has been that after workers unite and strike, and receive the support of public opinion, local government and firms make some temporary concessions. But then they begin to carry out harsh retribution against the most active rights defenders among the workers; they claim that they were taking orders from hostile foreign forces, and in some cases even frame up charges and get them sent to prison. This, however, doesn’t frighten workers, who are fighting for their own survival and that of their families. This is different from, for instance, the struggle for freedom of speech. Stripping workers of their income and benefits is a direct threat to their lives — but no one dies because they can’t speak the truth.
Late 2015 there was a crackdown against labor rights NGOs in Guangzhou, and of a sudden everyone seemed to be in a panic and besieged. Some made the calculation that the crackdown on these labor rights groups would bring an end to collective protest by workers. This reckoning was mistaken.
Both before and after the collective action by Shanghai sanitation workers, there were a number of large-scale actions by thousands of workers in Guangdong, and they achieved even better results than in Shanghai. The strike by sanitation workers in Changning was ad hoc, an emergency response — there was little solidarity or organization between workers. Though many people took part, it was essentially a mob event. The strike at the Panyu Shimen Hand Bag Co. (广州市番禺世门手袋有限公司) in early March was different. Around 1,000 people in the factory area went on strike, essentially taking it over. The workers were highly organized and prepared to strike a knock-out blow to management, and in the end were able to satisfy their demands for the social security payments and housing subsidies held in arrears to be paid off. Once the employer paid social security funds for the workers, the latter, especially the older among them would have a retirement payout, and it’s a much better position than if they’d been kicked out on their backsides back to the countryside, as would have happened otherwise.
Another noteworthy case involves Shenzhen SEG Co Ltd. The company wanted to move, and it would have to compensate workers. The law stipulates that if the company wants to sever the relationship with workers for its own reasons, not having to do with the employees themselves, then it must provide financial compensation to workers so affected. Usually, firms won’t inform workers that they’re going to move factories; instead, they quietly transfer their purchase orders and gradually move their machinery and equipment to the new factory district hundreds of miles away. The orders of the old factory decrease, workers only get minimal pay, and when workers’ lives are so stretched that they can barely make ends meet, they’re forced to look for jobs elsewhere. As this process takes place, after 18 months or so, what was a factory of thousands of workers has turned into just a few hundred. By the time management announces that they’re relocating production, there are only a few hundred parties they owe compensation to.
In the case of Shenzhen SEG, however, workers saw what was going on very early in the piece, and seized the initiative to strike first. They nominated, via direct election, 4 low- and mid-level management representatives and 7 worker representatives to form a ‘factory asset protection squad’ (守护资产的护厂队), and also formed another squad to act as bodyguards for the asset protection squad. Worker representatives submitted 10 demands to management, sought negotiations, and livestreamed the bargaining process. The compensation standard they submitted was “3N+5,” meaning that each year of seniority equalled three months of salary, with five months salary in addition. According to the Labor Contract Law (《劳动合同法》), legally rescinding a labor agreement requires compensation of one month of salary for each year of seniority, while illegally cancelling a labor agreement requires compensation of one month of salary for each year of seniority, and then an additional month’s salary as ‘notification payment.’ But these are the lowest stipulated compensation standards; the law doesn’t establish an upper limit. The demands made by Shenzhen SEG workers far exceeded the minimums requirement by law.
Changning district sanitation workers and Shenzhen SEG workers both went on strike on March 26; both strikes also concluded on March 31. In the end, however, the sanitation workers still ended up with a deduction of 260 yuan in their wages, while Shenzhen SEG workers managed to get a 1.5N + 1 payment for the factory’s relocation, as well as 10,000 yuan as an award for agreeing to that contract. This significant difference in outcome is a direct result of the different degrees of organization between the two groups of workers.
Resolving Labor Conflicts by Granting Workers Three Rights
Whether in state-owned enterprises or private companies, problems arise between labor and management — the only difference is that in the case of the former, it’s a conflict between state capital and labor, and in the latter it’s between private capital and labor. The history of Western countries over hundreds of years has shown that preserving three rights of workers is an effective means of resolving such disputes — but regrettably, China has yet to establish this sort of mechanism.
To the contrary, in China, the moment the government sees that workers are taking action, it calls it a ‘political incident’, or claims that it’s due to the incitement of hostile foreign forces. In the Changning, Shimen, and Shenzhen SEG incidents, there was no so-called foreign interference whatsoever. Why? with the Foreign NGO Management Law and the crackdown on labor NGOs in recent years, ‘foreign forces’ can’t get involved anymore. Yet, just because there is no help from labor rights groups, it doesn’t mean that workers themselves are unable to organize. Workers can learn, and from 2010 to 2015 with the wave of the labor rights movement, with the spread of internet access and spread of information, workers quickly grasped three basic points:
- Firstly, that they need to elect worker representatives. In southern China, this is known as a ‘worker representative system.’ This has legal grounds: according to the civil law, a group of individuals can elect representatives to negotiate on their behalf with management, government, the courts, and arbitration bodies — and this is known in the law as an entrusted agent relationship; further, it is grounded in the Labor Law, where in workplaces without unions, workers can elect representatives to engage in collective bargaining. Of course, there is ambiguity in the Labor Law in cases where there is a union but it does nothing; in such cases, can workers elect their own representatives? The law hasn’t made a clear determination on the matter.
- Secondly, they need to dispatch those representatives to negotiate on their behalf with the owners of capital, as a form of collective bargaining.
- Thirdly, that after the workers have elected representatives and invited management to negotiate, yet management has refused to respond, they need to exercise their right to strike, to force the owners of capital to the bargaining table.
These are the three rights of labor in the international context. Many workers in the south of China are now clear on these concepts, and are able to put them into practice. Given this, if the government continues to use an abnormal, crude form of ‘stability maintenance’ thinking, claiming that these workers are being used by hostile foreign forces, or even leveling the claim that independent labor organizations are competing with the Communist Party and its official unions for the ‘laboring classes,’ setting up a ‘second union,’ then they will be pushing workers into the opposition. For the government, this is politically unwise.
Why won’t the authorities allow these representatives, elected by workers themselves, to take part in the government-controlled unions? Hasn’t Xi Jinping criticized these unions and other similar organizations for bureaucratization, organizational involution, aristocratization, and general frivolity and misbehavior? How can these four negative tendencies be arrested? The only path forward is a constructive one: they should integrate the existing worker’s representatives and make them union cadres.
The state should have two primary functions: Firstly, to establish itself as a neutral party between labor and capital, and be an objective and fair umpire. The government should side neither with capital nor labor. Both forces are the fundamental constituents of productivity, and both are necessary. The state should mediate between them, not tilt the scales. As one worker once said, “we don’t need the government to come stand on our side — we simply need the government to remain neutral.” Secondly, the state should establish laws that govern the interactions between labor and capital, including administrative and judicial services that maintain the peace between the two sides. This would include a mechanism for reasoned negotiation and bargaining, in order to facilitate the two parties to resolve their problems.
Now, the situation in China is that the government comes out and forcibly shuts things down when labor and capital act unreasonably and clash to the point of harming the interests of the entire society.
Dr. Wang Jiangsong (王江松) is scholar of labor issues in China.
China Change, May 31, 2017
Liu Shaoming’s (刘少明) work as an activist, while based in Guangdong, saw him travel across the country in recent years. In Guangdong he joined the calls for releasing dissident Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Tang Jingling (唐荆陵), and numerous other participants in the Southern Street Movement (南方街头运动). He traveled to Xinyu in Jiangxi Province (江西新余), Jixi in Shaanxi Province (陕西鸡西), Jiansanjiang in Heilongjiang (黑龙江建三江), and many other places where citizens gathered to scrutinize the abuse of power. Over the last few years he has been summoned in for talks with the police or detained in police lockups dozens of times, but by what he called “luck” he was spared serious persecution. One human rights lawyer has described Liu as enthusiastic and selfless — like a brother. Indeed, at 59 years of age and a veteran of the June 4 democracy protests, for most of those in the field today Liu is of an older generation of activists.
In May of 1989 he was a worker at a steel factory in Jiangxi; he left behind his wife and infant child to travel to Beijing and live in one of the tents on the square, joining the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation (北京工人联合自治会), administering first-aid to the student protesters. He stayed with them until the early hours of June 4, and departed the square with them. He was later identified and jailed for a year.
According to Liu Shaoming’s defense lawyer Wu Kuiming (吴魁明), since 2014 — apart from his civil rights activism — Liu has been most heavily involved in helping workers in the Pearl River Delta (珠三角) region defend their rights. In the evening of May 29, 2015, in Guangzhou, he was taken away by unidentified men; two weeks later he was detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (寻衅滋事). His lawyer explained that the police have devoted enormous investigative resources to collecting and analyzing information about Liu’s participation in labor rights work, as supposed criminal activity. From this, the lawyer says, it’s clear that Liu’s labor rights work is the reason the authorities apprehended him.
Xiao Shu (笑蜀), a well-known writer on activist affairs who has observed the labor movement in Guangdong for many years, said that Liu Shaoming is one of the founders of the “Labor Defense Volunteers” (工维义工) collective in Guangzhou, a loose coalition of volunteers in southern China who advocate on behalf of workers’ rights. It had only been founded a few months before Liu Shaoming was arrested, but even by then the group had gotten involved in numerous labor rights incidents. Xiao Shu noted: “Over the last five months [in 2015], they’ve been involved in a strike at the Guangxin Shoe Factory in Ebu, Haifeng County, Guangdong (海丰县鹅埠广信鞋厂), and labor rights incidents at the Second Heavy Machinery Group in Sichuan (四川二重) and the Lide Shoe Factory in Guangzhou (广州利得鞋厂). The Lide strike was a total victory, and Liu Shaoming’s contribution was essential.”
On December 3, 2015, the Guangdong authorities targeted numerous labor NGOs in the Pearl River Delta region. Seven activists — including Zeng Feixiang (曾飞洋), Zhu Xiaomei (朱小梅), Peng Jiayong (彭家勇), He Xiaobo (何晓波), and Meng Han (孟晗), among others — were arrested on charges of “gathering crowds to disturb public order” for organizing strikes and fighting for the legitimate rights of workers. Another several dozen people were summoned and interrogated. China’s state media engaged in an all-out character assassination of them, accusing their small-scale grassroots organizations of “long-term receipt of funds from foreign organizations, profiting off labor and management disputes, severely disrupting social order, and severely trampling on the rights and benefits of workers.” Over the course of 2016, under immense international pressure and domestic cries of support, these labor activists were gradually given suspended sentences or released on probation.
But not Liu Shaoming. He has been treated like a different sort of criminal, and was indicted on January 5, 2016. Despite the fact that the police had collected a vast amount of information and evidence about his labor rights activities, when they arrested him the focus of the prosecutor’s accusations lay elsewhere entirely. Their charges said:
“An investigation performed according to the law has ascertained: From 2014 to May 2015, the defendant Liu Shaoming himself composed and compiled the documents “A Letter to the CCP’s Low-ranking Soldiers and Police in the Armed Forces” (《给中共当局基层武装力量的士兵和警员的一封信》), “A Letter to My Chinese Compatriots” (《告中国同胞书》), “My Views on the Overseas Democracy Movement” (《我对海外民运的看法》), “My Personal Views on the Reformist and Revolutionary Schools” (《我个人关于改良派和革命派看法》), among many essays and expressions which engaged in rumor mongering and slander against the state power and socialism. These texts were distributed via WeChat, QQ, Telegram and other software on his cellular phone, and were received by numerous friends on WeChat and Telegram; he also on numerous occasions disseminated these texts to WeChat and QQ friend groups, under the circumstances that he was fully aware that there were a large number of friends in those groups, identifying himself under the term of endearment ‘Old Migrant Worker Liu Shaoming,’ all of which had the effect of inciting subversion of state power and overturning the socialist system.”
Two defense lawyers pointed out that the police arrest of Liu Shaoming was “simply because the police regard Liu is a ‘troublemaker.’ Even if they had no evidence, they would still have arrested him.”
China Change has observed a key feature of the Chinese government’s suppression of civil society over the last several years, which goes some way to explaining the “special treatment” Liu Shaoming has been subjected to: this is that, horizontally, Liu’s activism spanned across the rights defense movement, political dissent, and labor rights spheres, and vertically, that its origin can be traced all the way back to the June 4 democracy movement and the ideas that animated it. This, in the eyes of an increasingly paranoid Chinese government, makes Liu appear somehow more “dangerous” — even though all of the activities he has engaged in, whether 28 years ago with the June 4 demonstration, or the labor activism in the Pearl River Delta today, are perfectly permissible under the Chinese constitution.
“When it comes to political cases,” remarked a human rights lawyer who wished to remain anonymous, “the key basis for the decision to arrest, investigate, and sentence a politically sensitive individual is not a question of the facts of the matter, but a question of whether they want to do it or not. It’s all about whom they want to get rid of and persecute.” Liu Shaoming now suffers the misfortune of having become one of the people the Party authorities want to remove from the scene.
Liu Shaoming was tried in the Guangzhou Municipal Intermediate People’s Court on April 15, 2016, for “inciting subversion of state power.” The hearing ended without a sentence. It is now over 13 months since the trial, and Liu has still not been sentenced. China’s Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that under normal circumstances “A people’s court shall pronounce the judgment on a case of public prosecution within two months or, not later than three months.”
In his statement of self-defense in court, Liu Shaoming responded to the charges thus: “Because of some essays and memoirs I wrote which accurately recorded that period of national and personal history, and because I expressed some political opinions that diverge from those of the authorities, I’ve been accused of ‘rumor mongering,’ ‘slander,’ and ‘inciting subversion of state power’ and put in the defendant’s chair in a court of law. Whatever the result, I will assume it calmly. This is the most I can do to comfort the fallen spirits of those who have laid down their lives for the project of democracy in China. As to whether I’m innocent or guilty, history will be the fairest judge. Whether it’s the 20 square meter cell of jail, or the 9.6 million square kilometer thought prison of the entire country, for those who yearn for freedom there is little difference.”
Of his own activism, he said: “The pursuit of liberty and democracy is what I have dreamed of and pursued my entire life… Our resistance and suffering today is nothing but the final stage of resistance and suffering in the five thousand years of history of the Chinese people. This time we’re making a stand without any of the slaughter and bloodletting of the past: this is a rational, peaceful, non-violent pursuit, to bring the light spring wind of constitutional democracy and liberty to this great ancestral land, and to bless China.”
He said that public security personnel in pre-trial interrogations focused exclusively on his involvement in labor activism, as well as on his support for human rights lawyers. But, he said, given that the indictment contained no mention of this, “You don’t mention it, I don’t defend it.”
In 2015 and 2016 China rolled out an intense battery of new legislation: the Foreign NGO Law (《中华人民共和国境外非政府组织境内活动管理法》), the Charity Law (《中华人民共和国慈善法》), the Cybersecurity Law (《网络安全法》), the State Security Law (《国家安全法》), and most recently a draft of the State Intelligence Law (《中华人民共和国国家情报法》草案), which will likely become a law in the near future. The international community has regarded this series of laws as primarily a formal codification of well-practiced repressive policies. They demonstrate how the Chinese authorities regard civil society as the greatest threat to the regime, and they’re aimed to maximally restrict the normal activities and growth of civil society in China.
From when he left Jiangxi as a steel factory worker, to his current imprisonment, half of Liu Shaoming’s life has been spent in the Pearl River Delta region as a migrant worker. He has worked as a porter, a construction laborer, an enterprise manager, a factory director, an advertisement salesman, and a copywriter for advertising pamphlets — he couldn’t be any more the Chinese everyman. Peng Jiayong (彭家勇), a colleague who has worked with him on labor rights, said: “He established a studio for advocating on behalf of workers and joined forces with them completely — eating together, living together. He never accepted any money from any organization, and no one ever gave him a salary or stipend. His juniors affectionately called him ‘Uncle Liu.’”