Workers in Walmart China are standing up to this corporate bully and beginning to find their voice.

Change Walmart workers protest for a better compensation scheme. Photo Credit: @paper

Changde Walmart workers protest for a better compensation scheme. Photo Credit: @paper

19 November is coming, a day that calls for Walmart workers around the world to act against the notoriously exploitative multinational. In China, labour activists have started spreading the word on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter.

2014 is a remarkable year for Chinese Walmart workers to stand up for their rights and interests that they deserve, no matter in terms of layoff compensation or a better pay scheme. Workers have shown their initiatives to get organised and collectively bargain with Walmart, despite the fact that independent unions are still not allowed in this country.

Earlier this year, Huang Xingguo, Changde Walmart’s union chairman, led a group of 69 workers for a three-month fight against an unfair compensation package after the supermarket they worked for declared closure in March. It is the first time that an official union chairman was actively involved in a collective struggle, and the first time that the company labour union resorted to the judicial system, the labour arbitration court, to demand better treatment for workers. Change Walmart’s struggle attracted attention and support from unions around the world, including AFL-CIO. In the meantime, workers also showed their support to Walmart workers industrial actions in America to make their voice heard, fight for human rights and better treatment.

“Walmart workers in a lot of cities in America went on strikes and asked our Chinese workers to show our support and solidarity. Many of our union members wholeheartedly support all the industrial actions of our coworkers in America,” Huang told Cenci.

“Although as a union chairman for an enterprise-level union, I should represent the Communist Party and am supposed to keep silent towards labour action abroad, we are all workers and workers around the world should keep connected. As a person and worker, I fully support and empathise with Walmart workers in America.”

Possibly bolstered by Changde Walmart workers’ fighting spirit, Walmart workers in other parts of China have also held collective action against unfair treatment by the Global500. In June, Walmart workers in Sichuan blocked the supermarket entrance in a protest for better salary. Workers told reporters that their monthly salary was too low to even reach the local minimum wage standard. Walmart managers reportedly called the police to help restore business and order.

Walmart workers in Sichuan blocked the store entrance in a protest for better pay. Photo Credit: China Net

Walmart workers in Sichuan blocked the store entrance in a protest for better pay. Photo Credit: China Net

“I have started working here since this store opened to business and earned a monthly salary of less than 900 yuan (92 pound). In the past four years Walmart never raised my salary,” a worker told China Net. Workers also claimed Walmart tried to cut their social insurance contribution as a way to fake pay increase.

Earlier August, 100 workers decided to unite and defend their legally binding rights at another Walmart store in Guangzhou, after the store announced closure and workers were told they had been laid off. Workers claimed on Weibo that the Walmart 123 Store they have been working for did not negotiate with them on their compensation package nor a reasonable arrangement plan.

Walmart workers in Guangzhou gathered after the store announced closure. Photo Credit: Guangzhou Walmart Workers Rights Group

Walmart workers in Guangzhou gathered after the store announced closure. Photo Credit: Guangzhou Walmart Workers Rights Group

“We held our first workers meeting and selected seven worker representatives”

said a worker on his Weibo named Guangzhou Walmart Workers Rights Group on 8 August. “We have commissioned Guangdong Labour Rights Law Firm to help us bargain with Walmart and find a solution to our demands.”

Needless to say, Walmart workers’ struggles are confronted with many obstacles. It is relatively easy for workers to get organised, but very difficult for workers to stay united. Take Changde Walmart for instance, out of the 69 workers who rejected Walmart’s settlement in March, only Huang and 17 other workers remained uncompromised when the labour arbitration court dismissed their case in June.

“I have encountered great pressure from the government. They have started asking my family members to persuade me (not to fight Walmart),” Huang told Cenci. “I have stopped publishing any news on my blog since May, as they will collect anything from my blog to use against us… Our workers also received great pressure from the government. They live in different communities. The community officials will find them and persuade them to give up. They even smeared me in front of workers, telling workers ‘don’t follow him. He is not a good person’.”

In Guangzhou Walmart workers’ struggle, 20 days after the store’s closure announcement, one workers representative wrote on a blog named Walmart 123 Store Workers Rights Group that Walmart was dividing workers and he was not sure what to do next.

“As a grass-roots worker and workers’ representative, I’m sorry to all my brothers and sisters. I didn’t get any benefits for you. I feel very sorry,” he wrote. “Walmart remained unmoved even after the media coverage. The number of our group members has dropped from 70 to 30. I really have no idea what to do next. I’m lost. Today our chief representative got a call from the HR. We don’t know what they discussed. The chief representative asked us to prepare a copy of ID card and give it to HR tomorrow.”

That said, labour activists in China are exploring ways to stay connected in solidarity. In September, a group of Walmart workers set up Walmart China Workers Solidarity Group to foster communication and unity among Walmart workers in China.

The Group’s declaration (preliminary) has been translated by USi into English:

Walmart China Workers Solidarity Group Declaration

In face of the worsening living condition of Walmart workers in China, some of our Walmart workers have decided to set up Walmart China Workers Solidary Group to provide a platform for Walmart workers across China to communicate with each other, stay united, and improve our strength in China.

Our group’s principle: the Group is a communication platform that strictly follows Chinese laws and regulations.

  1. To facilitate coworkers’ communication, to help coworkers redress their unfair treatment through domestic and international media coverage and possible legal assistance. For significant labour rights violations, the Group will question and condemn Walmart’s American headquarters, and timely notify Walmart workers in the US to get solidarity and support.
  2. To track Walmart’s unfair treatment system towards workers
  3. To monitor trade unions at Walmart’s branches in China and examine whether these unions’ setup, re-election and daily operation are in line with China’s trade union law.
  4. To facilitate Chinese Walmart workers’ communication, cooperation and friendship with Walmart workers around the world.
  5. To foster a culture of mutual helps and benefits among workers, and build a human-oriented community and a colourful life for all of us!

Workers’ Viewpoint, a social media based grassroots group that observes Chinese workers’ struggles, told USi that it had no idea whether the Walmart China Workers Solidary Group is still in its daily operation. But at least, it is good to see that workers are making effort to get united.

“It is an unbalanced labour struggle in Walmart’s case: dispersed workers in different stores V.S. a Global 500 superpower,” Workers’ Viewpoint said. “As a result, Chinese workers find it extremely difficult to fight against Walmart. We need to calm down to analyse and share more struggle experiences.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Jennifer Zhang

Jennifer Zhang is USi’s China coordinator based in Hong Kong.

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