[Marxism] Across China, Walmart Faces Labor Unrest as Authorities Stand Aside
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Thu Nov 17 07:18:52 MST 2016
NY Times, Nov. 17 2016
Across China, Walmart Faces Labor Unrest as Authorities Stand Aside
By JAVIER C. HERNÁNDEZ
SHENZHEN, China — In a one-man war room in his apartment, a laid-off
Walmart employee named Wang Shishu was tapping out a message on his
phone to a group of workers and plotting his next move.
Over the past few months, Mr. Wang, 56, has helped organize a national
movement in China against Walmart. Labor strikes have hit stores in the
south simultaneously. There have been boycotts in the northeast. And
here in Shenzhen, where Walmart opened its first outlet in China two
decades ago, employees have filed a lawsuit demanding back pay.
“We want a snowball effect,” he said in the booming baritone of a street
preacher. “We want everybody to know what to do next.”
As the Chinese economy has slowed, strikes and labor protests have
broken out across the country, mostly scattered episodes targeting a
single factory or business. The government has responded aggressively,
detaining activists and increasing censorship to keep unrest from spreading.
But activism against Walmart’s more than 400 stores in China in recent
months has followed a different pattern: workers in several cities
agitating against the same company, bypassing official unions controlled
by the Communist Party and using social media to coordinate their
actions — while the authorities largely stand aside.
Across China, Walmart employees have raised their fists at protests,
chanting, “Workers, stand up!” They have appealed to local officials
with patriotic fervor, invoking the struggles of Mao Zedong against
foreign imperialists. They have posted screeds online against unkind
bosses and “union puppets.”
In doing so, the Chinese work force of the world’s largest retail chain
has put the ruling Communist Party in an uncomfortable position,
publicly testing its Marxist commitment to defend the working class and
pitting that against its fear of independent labor activism.
Ever since the Solidarity trade union helped topple Communist rule in
Poland, Beijing has sought to prevent the emergence of a nationwide
labor movement, suppressing efforts by workers to organize across
industries or localities.
But the authorities appear to be hesitating in the case of Walmart,
whose workers have complained of low wages and a new scheduling system
they say has left them poorer and exhausted.
In recent months, as many as 20,000 people, about a fifth of the
company’s work force in China, have joined messaging groups set up by
Mr. Wang and other activists on WeChat, a popular app. In these forums,
they vent about company policies, share protest slogans and discuss
plans to coordinate demonstrations for maximum effect.
Mr. Wang, a former customer service representative whom Walmart has
fired twice, spends his days babysitting his granddaughter and trading
messages with workers across the country, often as late as 2 a.m.
“What they’re doing is inhumane,” he said. “I want Walmart to return to
the sympathetic company it used to be.”
Eli Friedman, a labor scholar at Cornell University, said the Walmart
movement was “probably the most substantive example of sustained,
cross-workplace, independent worker organizing we’ve ever seen in
China’s private sector.”
The government appears to be keeping a distance because it is worried
about provoking a backlash, or about acting on behalf of a prominent
American company against Chinese workers at a time when nationalism in
China is rising.
But by doing little or nothing, it risks encouraging disaffected workers
elsewhere, especially at the growing number of national chain businesses
with operations across China. Already, workers at Neutrogena stores and
China Unicom, a state-owned telecom operator, have used similar tactics,
while avoiding serious punishment.
“We can only expect that online organizing will continue to break down
local barriers,” said Keegan Elmer, a researcher for China Labour
Bulletin, an advocacy group based in Hong Kong.
The retail sector in particular has become a hotbed of worker activism.
The government wants to shift growth from manufacturing to service
industries, but many new jobs at restaurants, hotels and stores are
low-paying or part-time.
From July through September, there were 124 strikes and protests at
service-sector firms, about double the number last year, outpacing
episodes in manufacturing for the first time since at least 2011,
according to China Labour Bulletin.
Chinese law requires businesses to establish labor unions, but they are
almost always controlled by management, and companies generally use the
unions to contain worker activism. In the face of labor strife, some
businesses have offered back pay, bonuses and other benefits to workers.
But others, concerned that labor activism could force costly
concessions, have resorted to tougher tactics, retaliating against those
who help organize protests. At Walmart, some of the most vocal workers
have been deprived of raises, reassigned, or in some cases fired,
according to interviews with more than a dozen employees.
At one store in Zhongshan, west of Shenzhen, a labor activist said a
supervisor photographed her in the bathroom as retribution for speaking
out. She asked not to be identified for fear of further antagonizing her
Much of the discontent stems from a new scheduling system that Walmart
put in place this summer as a way, the company said, of giving workers
more flexibility. Workers have argued that it has resulted in cuts to
overtime pay and excessively long shifts, and some say they were coerced
into signing new contracts agreeing to the system.
Walmart denied that it had treated its employees unfairly or had
pressured them to accept the new schedules. Rebecca Lui, a spokeswoman,
said that the vast majority of its work force supported the new system,
and that employees were free to keep their old schedules.
“Our associates are our most valuable asset,” she said in a statement.
Zhai Xiuhua, a former greeter at a Walmart store in Shenzhen, said she
was fired in September after leading a fight against the new scheduling
“I told them, ‘Even if you put a knife to my neck, I’ll never agree,’”
she recalled at her home, where her uniform and identification badge —
No. 14470 — still hang on the wall. Ms. Zhai, worried about medical
bills, says she now hopes to find work in her hometown in the
southwestern province of Sichuan.
Walmart, which has resisted unionization at its thousands of stores
across the world, was forced by the government in 2006 to establish
branches of the Communist Party-controlled All-China Federation of Trade
Unions for its roughly 100,000 Chinese employees, part of a broader push
by the party to unionize foreign businesses.
But union branches at many Walmart stores are under the thumb of store
managers, and higher-level union officials appear torn about how to
respond to complaints from workers like Ms. Zhai.
While union officials here in Guangdong Province have criticized Walmart
for not seeking governmental approval for the new scheduling system,
they have not taken more forceful action or helped mobilize workers.
Labor activists at Walmart have cited the ideals of President Xi Jinping
and the Communist Party’s history of protecting workers, and experts
said they appeared to be benefiting from a belief among some officials
that the influence of foreign companies such as Walmart should be curtailed.
“If the Chinese authorities try to suppress the workers on behalf of
Walmart,” said Wang Jiangsong, a Chinese labor scholar, “it will hurt
the country’s image.”
When Walmart opened its first store in China in 1996, workers rushed to
snap up jobs that paid more than those at Chinese competitors.
Now, some employees say, a Walmart job does not pay enough to
comfortably support a family, with wages hovering around minimum wage,
or about $300 a month. While Walmart has led a high-profile campaign in
the United States to raise pay, salaries in China have remained largely
stagnant, workers said, barely keeping pace with inflation.
Walmart has struggled to keep up with the fast-changing tastes of
Chinese consumers and tried to re-energize its business by making
investments in online retailers.
But the continuing labor unrest poses a potential hurdle.
You Tianyu, 45, a customer service employee at a Walmart store in
Shenzhen, caught the attention of her supervisors in August when she
wrote a letter to the president of Walmart, Doug McMillon, to complain
about the company’s efforts to silence aggrieved workers.
Ms. You said her bosses now harassed her daily because she spoke out,
and she has received a diagnosis of anxiety and depression.
She spends most of her nonworking hours rummaging through a mess of
worker manifestoes, union laws and pay slips in her tiny apartment,
hoping to find a new line of attack against Walmart.
“I’m on the verge of collapsing,” she said. “I don’t know how much
longer I’ll last.”
Follow Javier C. Hernández on Twitter @HernandezJavier.
Owen Guo contributed research.
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