Workers don’t need threats, just the chance to negotiate

With the annual pre-Lunar New Year surge in wage arrears protests in full swing, government news and social media outlets are abuzz with warnings to workers to refrain from taking “extreme action,” and threats to blacklist employers whose failure to pay wages leads to worker protests.

A look at CLB’s Strike Map over the last month shows however that China’s workers at least are more than willing to engage in negotiations to resolve disputes. Rather than resort to so-called extreme actions, they can go to great lengths to follow the law and try to work out conflicts with their employers even when their rights have been severely violated.

Out of the roughly 100 wage arrears disputes recorded on the strike map in December, there were at least a dozen detailed reports of workers organizing to negotiate a resolution with management, including two cases from Hainan discussed below. It is safe to assume also that similar negotiations occurred in many other cases but no journalists were on hand to record them.

Local governments should learn from this and, rather than resort to threats, seek to leverage the clearly demonstrated capacity of workers for collective negotiations by encouraging the trade union to get involved and represent employees in good faith bargaining with management.

Company cheats workers and hires scabs

A handful of construction workers gathered at the gate of a property development construction site in Haikou, Hainan on 4 December to protest the hiring of scabs after the workers had put down their tools over two years of unpaid wages.

When journalists arrived at the scene, worker representatives were locked in discussions with the subcontractor who had hired them but who claimed in turn that he was owed money by the developer. Worker representatives went to the primary developer where staff admitted that they had failed to pay some subcontractors, but questioned whether the workers’ salaries were part of the unpaid fees.

Workers finally got the government to intervene, though the companies refused to consider payment until after the government report was published.

Hardship spreads to workers’ families

When a dozen workers from Sichuan came to Lingao, Hainan to work on a road construction project, they were promised to be paid by the month. By the end of the project, they had not been paid at all.

For weeks, workers made phone calls and visits in person with the subcontractor, who repeatedly promised, and failed, to pay them. Workers went to the labour department no less than five times, but officials just told them to continue talking with their boss. Workers were forced to borrow money from family members to survive, and one even missed his own wedding.

Workers finally went to the primary construction company, which at first had only promised to pay them a portion of the wages. After long negotiations, the construction company agreed to pay the workers the next day.  

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