A two-week strike by sanitation workers in Guangzhou last month showed what can be achieved through worker solidarity, a clearly defined strategy, and a determination to bring the boss to the negotiating table.
In August 2014, more than 200 sanitation workers in the University Town district of southern Guangzhou were faced with the prospect of either being laid-off by their employer, GrounDey Property Management (广电物业) or moving with the company away from their homes to another part of the city. GrounDey’s street cleaning contract with the neighbourhood government was due to expire on 1 September and the company had announced that it would not seek to renew. The employees were concerned about two key issues; firstly, getting fair and reasonable severance pay from GrounDey, and secondly getting guarantees from the local government that the company taking over the cleaning contract for University Town would hire the entire existing workforce.
University Town is a modern, purpose-built complex of ten higher education institutes located on an island south of the city centre. It is administered by the Xiaoguwei subdistrict government.
The workers’ response
The workers demanded talks with GrounDey to resolve their grievances but were rebuffed. As a result, they approached the nearby Panyu Workers Centre for assistance. The Panyu Centre, a well-established labour rights group with extensive experience in collective bargaining, gave the workers strategic advice and helped them elect representatives to lead and carry their campaign forward. On 23 August, the workers democratically elected 18 representatives, including three treasurers to manage their campaign funds.
During the election process, the workers got advice from Yu Wucang, a veteran sanitation worker from another district of Guangzhou who stressed that the University Town workers needed to represent themselves and defend their own interests regardless of who their employer was. Yu explained that, in his district, the local government encouraged the resident sanitation workers to stick together and bargain for their own interests because this enhanced the workers’ sense of belonging in the district and insured the quality of their work. He suggested that the University Town workers could adopt the slogan “Steel-forged workers and ever-changing companies.”
With a concise set of demands and a clear strategy in place, the workers again demanded that the company meet them face to face to discuss their grievances. GrounDey still refused to talk so on 26 August the workers went out on strike. See photo below.
Support from students and the media
One of the key elements of the workers’ strategy was to get as much support as possible from the public. Many of the 200,000 students in the University Town area were already sympathetic to the workers’ cause and students from Sun Yat-sen University quickly launched an online petition to support the striking workers. "We share the same sky and breathe the same air as the sanitation workers and signing a letter is the least we can do," said Chen Weixiang from Sun Yat-sen University. Within a week, more than 900 students had signed the letter supporting the workers’ action and many brought water and food to the striking workers. More than 4,000 yuan was donated to the strike fund, while a farmer in Beijing even sent 18 cartons of fresh peaches to boost the workers' morale.
The strike attracted a lot of attention on social media with citizen journalists interviewing and photographing the workers. See photo below. Many ordinary members of the public visited the strikers and voiced their support.
The official media also covered the story, with Guangdong Television doing a report at the strike scene. In all, at least seven official media outlets covered the strike over its two week duration, some reporting new developments as and when they occurred. Clearly, the strike was not seen by the official media as a politically sensitive issue but rather simply as a dispute between workers and their employer which had attracted public concern and sympathy. Most reports were well-balanced and allowed the workers to speak for themselves. See table below for details (Chinese only).
Official media coverage of the sanitation workers’ strike
Police and local government action
When the strike broke out on 26 August, local police were dispatched to the scene but left soon afterwards when the workers’ representatives assured them they would not block traffic. Later, the police did take away a human rights lawyer who had offered to help represent them but the workers went to the police station and stood outside chanting for his release.
Eventually, local government officials came out to meet the striking workers and offered to mediate but the workers insisted on direct face-to-face bargaining with the company. The local government then arranged and chaired a collective bargaining meeting that took place on 2 September.
Collective bargaining and agreement
The 2 September meeting was attended by five of the workers' representatives, two consultants from the Panyu Workers’ Centre and around 20 local government officials from various departments. The other 200 workers gathered outside the bargaining venue waiting for news. See photo below..
The three company representatives present initially refused to take part in the bargaining until they were reprimanded by a government official who said: "The government is convening today's meeting to settle the dispute between the two parties, GrounDey must come forward and sit down at the table now.”
Probably the most significant development at the collective bargaining session was the attendance of local trade union officials who made a point of sitting with and supporting the workers’ representatives during the negotiations. One local trade union official demanded: “Where is the chair of the enterprise union at GrounDey? The union is a workers' union and shouldn't take orders from the management!”
After several hours of negotiation, GrounDey offered employees a severance package of 1,000 yuan for every year of service. The workers’ negotiators immediately made a counter-offer but agreed to take the company’s offer back to the representatives committee for consideration. There followed a week of negotiations between the workers and the local government (representing the company) after which GrounDey finally agreed to pay each worker 3,000 yuan for each year of service at the company, plus social security and housing fund contributions in arrears, or an estimated total payment of three million yuan. The workers’ chief representative, Wang Ruolong, said they were happy with the result. Even though the details of the agreement were supposed to be confidential, the deal was widely reported in the media.
On the morning of 13 September, after they had signed their severance agreements and been paid in full by GrounDey, all the workers reported for duty at the new contractor and returned to work en masse. However, there were still unresolved issues with the new employer that needed to be worked out. A video made by the workers and their supporters tells the story of their struggle up until this point.
New contract negotiations
The local government awarded the new cleaning contract for University Town to Guangzhou Suicheng Construction and Property Co. Ltd. (广州遂成建业物业有限公司). The company immediately created problems for the workers by stating that it would not hire elderly employees or those without a local household registration despite agreeing in its contract with the local government to take on all of the GrounDey employees who wished to continue working.
The move was seen by workers as an attempt by Suicheng to get rid of those it considered troublemakers. Many of the workers representatives were originally from the neighbouring province of Hunan. Despite living in Guangzhou for many years, none of them had been granted a Guangzhou household registration.
“It is a dirty trick designed to weaken the workers’ solidarity,” said workers’ leader Wang Ruolong, who was from Hunan himself but had been working in University Town for nine years. “In our mind, there are no locals or non-locals, the striking sanitation workers at University Town are a big family, and we stand together.”
Although they returned to work, the workers initially refused to sign new contracts unless the company agreed to hire everyone as promised. Eventually, Suicheng did agree to hire all the workers but it took several weeks for the two sides to negotiate a new employment contract and for all the workers to sign it. The last group of workers signed their contracts on Sunday 12 October.
The workers asked for several new safeguards to be written into their contracts, and Suicheng accepted the vast majority of these demands. For example, the workers’ work hours, job duties and work location were clearly defined, thereby preventing the company from assigning them additional work in other districts, a common practice under GrounDey. In addition, Suicheng agreed to provide the workers with protective equipment they had previously purchased by themselves. Crucially, the contract stated that any dispute arising from the company’s violation of workers’ rights should be dealt with through good faith negotiations between the company and the trade union or the workers’ representatives.
There have been many strikes and protests by sanitation workers in Guangzhou over the last few years, primarily over low pay, social insurance and poor working conditions. See CLB’s report Searching for the Union: The Workers’ Movement in China 2011-13 for more details. What made the University Town dispute so noteworthy was the relatively complex, two-stage, nature of the dispute, the remarkable solidarity of the workers in the face of attempts to divide them, plus the key role played by the Panyu Workers Centre in advising and guiding the workers’ actions.
The dispute also highlighted the inherent problems of contract negotiations when there is a stable workforce but an unstable employer/contactor. As is the case in many cities where street cleaning and garbage collection is contracted out by the local government to private companies, the workers themselves are by far the most stable element in the employment relationship. Under these circumstances, if the local government is intent on keeping the contract system for public services, it has to ensure that the rights of the existing workforce are protected whenever there is a change of contractor.
The lesson learned from the University Town dispute surely should be that local governments need to establish a formal and stable system of collective bargaining during which all contract issues can be resolved peacefully without the need for prolonged industrial action.
For more background information on the University Town sanitation workers strike and an analysis of the regions’ historical and economic development, please see New foundations for struggle and solidarity: The culmination of development and privatization on a Guangzhou Island, published on 7 October.