In early November 2016, hundreds of agency workers from FAW-Volkswagen, a Sino-German car manufacturing joint-venture in the north-eastern city of Changchun, filed a complaint with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) demanding equal pay for equal work. Some of them, hired by employment agencies on behalf of FAW-Volkswagen, had been working at the company for more than ten years but claimed they were only paid half as much as a directly employed workers.
Initially, there was optimism that the dispute could be successfully resolved. The workers elected three representatives, Fu Tianbo, Ai Zhenyu and Wang Shuai to engage in collective bargaining with management. The employers, FAW-Volkswagen and the labour agencies, were willing to sit at the other end of the bargaining table, and the Changchun municipal trade union federation together with the local industrial zone union representatives, were also ready to engage in talks to find a resolution to the dispute.
But one year on, the 3,000 agency workers at the car factory are still waiting for their demands to be heard, their colleague and worker representative Fu Tianbo is facing criminal prosecution for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order,” and the parent company, Volkswagen Group, has decided to look the other way.
A labour dispute that could have been solved through collective bargaining has now turned into a criminal case, and the official union seems to have missed the chance to do its job and truly represent the workers.
FAW-Volkswagen agency workers stage a protest at the plant in Changchun in May 2017
The FAW-Volkswagen agency workers launched their campaign for equal pay for equal work in late 2016 when the two-year transitional period for compliance with China’s 2014 Interim Provisions on Agency Labour expired and their employer had still not made the legally required adjustments to strictly limit the use agency labour.
On social media, the workers claimed that FAW-Volkswagen was in breach of Chinese law as well as Volkswagen’s own global commitment to its employees. They did their homework and pointed out how the company was in violation of several articles in China’s Labour Contract Law:
Article 63 states that “Agency workers shall have the right to receive the same pay as that received by directly-employed workers for the same work,” and Article 66 stipulates that agency work should be strictly supplementary and “shall exclusively apply to provisional, auxiliary or substitutive positions.”
Some of the agency workers like Fu Tianbo had been employed in skilled core production positions such as soldering for a decade or more.
Besides the salary difference, the agency workers claimed that they would often be subject to harsher disciplinary action, did not enjoy the same medical insurance package, had no compensation for overtime and enjoyed none of the fringe benefits of full FAW-Volkswagen employees. Together with a detailed list of the company’s legal breaches, Fu Tianbo posted a template demand for his colleagues: he asked for a total of 1.3 million yuan in compensation for years of unequal pay and the signing of formal employment contracts with FAW-Volkswagen.
International news organisations, especially the German media, picked up the story and helped generate pressure on Volkswagen to respond to the Changchun workers’ demands. The workers invoked the German company’s 2012 Global Framework Agreement’s Charter on Temporary Work and highlighted the company’s failure to comply with a commitment to equal pay for temporary workers, inclusion into the permanent workforce after the completion of a certain number of contractual extensions, and the limiting of the percentage of temporary staff employed within the company.
The workers and trade union officials engaged in two rounds of collective bargaining with management. They also filed their case with the Changchun labour dispute arbitration committee, and later brought the employer to court. Unfortunately the bargaining yielded no positive results, their arbitration case was ignored, and their lawsuit got stuck in a legal quagmire. Worse, their protests were met with police harassment and in May 2017 their representatives were arrested. One year after they started their campaign, their social media presence was erased by China’s internet censors.
However, the workers were not alone in their year-long struggle for fair treatment: FAW-Volkswagen workers gained international solidarity from Germany’s IGMetall works council, French trade unions CGT and FO, and support from a small but high profile group of protesters at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July.
They also issued public and direct calls to the Volkswagen Group and Volkswagen’s works council in Germany to look into the legal violations in Changchun and secure the release of their colleague and worker representative Fu Tianbo. In a bilingual Chinese/German letter the workers emphasised that: “FAW-Volkswagen’s practices have not only violated Chinese laws, their discriminatory treatment of agency workers violated the principles and practices of Volkswagen Group’s own Global Framework Agreement’s (GFA) Charter on Temporary Work for the Volkswagen Group.”
In a response issued on 7 August, the Volkswagen Group, which reportedly makes 49 percent of its global pre-tax profits from China’s automobile market, claimed that “subcontracted workers are paid according to the same system used for the core workforce” and that the company “is making every effort to find a mutually acceptable solution.”
The workers themselves say there is no evidence of any efforts by the Volkswagen Group to intervene in the labour dispute and seek a resolution on mutually acceptable terms. Moreover, the failure to even acknowledge that a worker representative was in police custody after exercising his rights to represent his colleagues blatantly contradicts the company’s commitment to recognise the legitimacy of representatives and "work together openly and in the spirit of constructive and co-operative conflict management” to address worker demands.
Three weeks later, Volkswagen even took an even bigger step backwards: on 25 August, the company stated that it has only a minority stake in the Changchun joint-venture and thus has a limited responsibility in the dispute. It instead simply encouraged workers to take their case to relevant organs in accordance with Chinese law.
There is still hope for the workers however and importantly still a chance for the official trade union to reclaim its legitimacy and gain the trust of the agency workers. Despite the failed intervention and unsuccessful collective bargaining rounds, the local trade union could still put its substantial institutional resources to good use by providing imprisoned worker representative Fu Tianbo with legal assistance, and paving the way for his early release. This would bring the focus back to what this is: a labour dispute, not a criminal case.
At the same time, Changchun could follow the example of the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions during the height of the Walmart workers campaign against flexible working hours, by taking a stance in support of the workers at FAW-Volkswagen. The Changchun Federation should abandon its detached, neutral position, approach the 3,000 or so agency workers and carefully listen to their demands, and facilitate a new round of collective bargaining.
In the meantime, the agency workers are still waiting to reunite with their colleague Fu Tianbo. In a now deleted social media post, one worker wrote in July:
Let brother Tianbo know we are all waiting for his release, let him know that we feel his pain. We stand together in solidarity, regardless of how long we’ve worked together. Our collective struggle, brother Tianbo’s personal sacrifice, will not be in vain. In the end, we may not get all we demand for, but we will never regret having fought together!