Taken for a ride: Guangdong bus drivers stage strike as union sides with boss

In September 2012, a Guangdong bus driver narrowly averted an accident when he slammed on the breaks to avoid a motorbike. Instead of being commended for his quick thinking, the driver at the Xiaolan bus company in Zhongshan was actually fined by management because one of the passengers sustained an injury during the incident. This, and a similar incident involving another driver, was the final straw for many company employees who had been complaining for years about a wide range of management abuses. On 24 September, around one hundred drivers and conductors went out on strike.

The strike was reported in the Southern Metropolis Daily and soon afterwards China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang called one of the strike leaders, Fei Bin, to get an update on the strike and understand more about the background to the dispute and in particular the role of the trade union at the bus company.

The most pressing and underlying issue for the strikers, Fei said, was the arbitrary and inadequately documented way in which their wages were paid:

There is no clear basis to our wage payments, there is no breakdown. You do not know what subsidies or allowances are included, or what has been left out. They were just writing in what they liked. But it was obvious that we weren’t getting our full entitlement. The company was cutting out some payments.

Fei believed they had been cheated out of considerable sums over the years by the management. But because of the difficulty of retrospectively putting a figure on the missing pay, the strikers proposed a flat-rate compensation framework based on a fixed sum for each year of service. Fei and five other worker representatives asked the company to produce properly itemized pay slips for a three-month period that would give them a baseline for calculation but nothing was forthcoming.

Litany of abuses

The workers’ list of grievances was extensive and showed the scale and depth of management abuses at the bus company. The first item on the list concerned the company’s employment contracts:

When we first signed the contract there were blanks in it. And we did not have time to even read what was actually written there. We had to go to some place for the signing, and they hurried us through the whole process and got us out of the room quickly after signing, so nobody got to see exactly what was on it.

When they later made a complaint about this to the local labour bureau, employees were eventually given a copy of the contract, but the terms had been altered.

The second complaint was that new employees did not get any social security for the first six months of their employment. And when it was purchased, it took no account of the workers’ actual salary but was based on the lowest possible rate.

Thirdly, workers demanded greater transparency and accountability in the way salaries were calculated, in particular the use of arbitrary fines and the lack of clear company rules and regulations.

We want the company to publicise its regulations, so that everybody knows where they stand. At the moment, they simply fine you as much as they see fit. There is no fixed scale; they make it up as they go along.

Another complaint concerned the issue that triggered the strike, the docking of drivers’ pay for accidents beyond their control. Fei, like many others, had his own story:

A car ran into the back of my bus once when I was waiting at a red light. I had to pay a fine to the company, stop working and go on a training course. On top of that, I had to sign a so-called guarantee that I would never let something like that happen again. I even had to write a self-criticism. I did not know what to say. I had stopped at a red light. There was nothing I could do. Should I have driven straight through it, to avoid the crash? Even when we are not responsible, we have to make these compensation payments. And what’s more, they then go and claim insurance.

The company was basically trying to pass all responsibility for all accidents onto its drivers, Fei said.

Penny pinching

There were another ten or so complaints, involving unpaid overtime and allowances, fines and docked pay, and unpaid chores. A particularly iniquitous wage deduction, Fei said, was for excessive fuel consumption.

They work out average fuel consumption for a single route, and if you fall below the average, they will give you a bonus of ten yuan to 50 yuan. But if you exceed the fuel-use average, they fine you between 100 and 150 yuan. It’s completely unfair, because your fuel consumption inevitably goes up if you get stuck in traffic and have to use a low gear. If I get a clear run, and can go at 40 or 50 km an hour, then I do not consume so much fuel. It’s the luck of the draw.

Likewise, drivers were penalized each time they had to change a tyre, a frequent occurrence because the company refused to buy new tyres and used re-treads instead: “Sometimes, you change a tyre, and on the second day there is already a bulge on it.” Fei said.

Drivers were also required to clean and refuel their vehicles themselves on their own time:

It was not possible for you to just drive eight hours and then knock off. I have to go in at 6.30.am and check the vehicle. The buses need to be warmed up, and we have to do all this preparatory work before we set off. And after knocking off in the evening, we still have to clean the vehicles and refuel them before we can clock out.

Workers regularly put in 13 hours a day, Fei said, and for those five extra hours, the company evidently paid no overtime whatsoever, though the vagueness of the payslips made this impossible to verify.

In 2008, the drivers’ quarterly and year-end attendance bonuses were scrapped without explanation. However, management and administrators continued to get the bonuses, which could be as high as 100,000 yuan a year in some cases, Fei said.

Time off was severely restricted. The bus drivers were expected to work weekends and holidays because they belonged to a “special sector” but their overtime rates, did not reflect this. “On Saturdays and Sundays, we never got double pay, and we did not get triple pay on statutory holidays,” Fei said. Moreover, the around 100 female employees did not get maternity leave, despite a statutory entitlement to 98 days.

The drivers and bus conductors did not get the statutory high-temperature allowance in the stifling heat of the summer but the administrative staff who worked in an air-conditioned office at the company headquarters did, Fei said.Finally, the drivers had to buy their own uniforms, at a cost of up to 800 yuan. The company did not even provide them with shoes.

You have to wear black shoes, and you get fined if you wear any other different colour, 50 to 200 yuan. There is also a fine if you wear a different uniform.

Calculating the bill

The workers came up with a flat-rate demand of 1,000 yuan per month, or 12,000 yuan per year, of service as a way of settling their outstanding back pay and overtime issues. According to this formula, Fei, who had worked at the company for five years, would be entitled to 60,000 yuan. But this was rejected by the company. Manager Huang Yaoquan bluntly told reporters covering the dispute, “This sum is far too high and we are not prepared to pay out a bean.”

After a day-long meeting involving high-ranking local officials, including the mayor, the striking workers were offered a lump-sum compensation package of just 8,500 yuan for the older workers who joined the company before 2007. For those who joined the company later, the pay-out was reduced by 500 yuan for each year after 2007.

Some of the younger drivers agreed to the deal but the older workers held out for more:

Everybody has worked together for many years. The company has swindled a large sum of money from us and the government put pressure on us. The holdouts feel we are owed a lot more and they are determined to carry on to the end.

In the ‘wrong seat’

Throughout this dispute, the company trade union, like many in China, aligned itself firmly with management. As a result, the workers had no option but to organize the strike themselves, elect their own representatives and push for change.

Han Dongfang pointed out that the company’s unelected chairman Chen Wenxiang was clearly sitting in the “wrong seat” and suggested to Fei that he and his colleagues appeal directly to the Guangdong and Guangzhou trade union federations, which are among China’s most progressive, and seek their help in getting the union boss replaced.

[You could] demand that they help you elect another company union boss and representatives like yourself, and you could later participate in elections for the union committee. In this way, your company could hold legal union elections, with the help of the municipal trade union federation. And then this union organisation could guarantee the [safety of the] worker representatives. If there is no such guarantee from a union organisation, then it is really difficult for workers.

He also urged the strikers to look beyond the strike and try to develop mechanisms for negotiation to avoid this kind of confrontation in future. CLB offered a day or two in training on collective bargaining and strategic development at its offices in Hong Kong.

This interview was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in eight episodes in October and November 2012.

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