Workers fight for their livelihoods as pressure builds on China’s retail sector

CLB’s latest research report analyses years of worker organizing and action at Walmart stores across China, as well as the workers’ fight to reclaim the trade union for themselves.

But Walmart is not alone in being the target of shop worker activism in China. The rise of e-commerce platforms over the last five years has put huge pressure on brick and mortar retail outlets, where closures are common and workers are often left without pay or any compensation when businesses go south. CLB’s Strike Map has recorded a total of 36 strikes and collective protests by retail workers so far this year, about 3.5 percent of all incidents, compared with just one percent of all incidents recorded in 2014.

CLB’s report, China’s Walmart workers: Creating an opportunity for genuine trade unionism, shows that determined and united worker action can bring about positive results even when faced with the world’s largest retailer. One of the best known examples of worker activism in the retail sector came in 2014 when the trade union leader at Walmart’s Changde store, Huang Xingguo, organized his colleagues in a month-long campaign for compensation after Walmart suddenly announced the store’s closure  The campaign eventually forced Walmart to increase its compensation offer by 3,000 yuan per person.

Not all retail workers’ actions are successful but, as two incidents this month show, even when the boss vanishes, workers are still determined to get paid.

Workers occupy supermarket after boss skips town

Workers at a supermarket in Foshan returned from the Golden Week holiday in early October to discover that their boss had skipped town and the store was completely empty.

The workers, along with several local suppliers, occupied the store in the hope of catching the boss upon his return. Eventually, the local labour bureau, the police and neighbourhood committee members arrived at the scene and paid the workers a portion of their wages.

The workers were reluctant to sue their boss because they had not signed labour contracts and feared the courts would reject their case. However, workers without contracts can in fact pursue legal action if they have sufficient proof of a labour relationship such as pay stubs or other documentary evidence.

Clothes store workers take case to labour inspectorate

About 20 workers occupied a clothes store in Suzhou on 25 October when it became clear the boss was planning to close the business.

The saleswomen had worked at the Qianjiahui Apparel Emporium for a month but had never been paid. When several movers arrived at the store and packed up all the merchandise, the workers were spurred into action and occupied the premises for a whole day and night.

Workers then took their case to the local labour inspectorate who called the boss in for mediation. The boss retaliated by firing all the workers. Though none had signed labour contracts, they received all their back pay, overtime, and additional compensation for being dismissed without one month’s notice, as required by Chinese labour law. 

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