China’s “ant tribe” of university graduates starts to fight back

24 March 2010

Nearly seven million university graduates enter the job market each year, and millions struggle to find any work, let alone a decent job. Many become part of the so called “ant tribe” (蚁族), labouring long hours in white collar jobs that pay little more than jobs on the factory floor, and living in “ant colonies” on the outskirts of big cities.

Many take jobs that look good in the recruitment advertisement but turn out to be an exploitative trap. Once inside, they find they can only leave if they are willing to accept a loss. Some members of the ant tribe however are beginning to fight back and demand the remuneration they are owed.

In June 2009, CLB Director Han Dongfang talked to one such graduate who had earlier accepted a job in a company selling pharmaceutical products. The recruitment ad promised a base salary of 1,000 yuan plus commission. However, the graduate soon discovered that the reality for sales personnel after recruitment was very different.

He had graduated from a vocational college in Henan in 2006 with a degree in computer software but could only find a job some two years later far away in the northeastern city of Shenyang. Listed prominently on the recruitment website was a sales position at the so called “Beijing Tongrentang Qianshan Pharmaceutical Products Co. Ltd., Shenyang Subsidiary.” The company used the brand name of the long-established and reputable pharmacy, Tongrentang (同仁堂), but was not part of the Tongrentang group, and only resold its products, primarily to retired civil servants. Indeed, the graduate said, the company did not even have a business licence when he was hired in October 2008. It was a “very unethical” advertisement, he said.

False promises

“They said very clearly that sales personnel would still get their base salary of 1,000 yuan,” even if they didn’t make any sales in a month. Moreover, “the manager said it himself” at the initial training session, the graduate explained. “I did pretty good business the first month; I sold 15,000 yuan worth of products…but they deducted six days because I started on the 6th of the month.” He felt he should have earned 1,500 or 1,600 yuan that month, but was paid only 1,300 yuan. About 700 yuan was deducted in the second month, and up to 800 yuan in subsequent months “If you didn’t meet the sales quota, they took out 300 yuan. They also took 20 or 30 yuan for having one person less than the quota at your sales meeting. So, using this method and other tactics like deducting 20 yuan if your phone rang during a meeting, you hardly had anything left at the end of each month.” In January and February 2009, he got no salary at all.

The sales reps were not offered labour contracts when they joined. “Here in the mainland, 70 or 80 percent of small- and medium-sized companies don’t sign labour contracts with their workers. None of my friends and colleagues has signed one…We all know about the Labour Contract Law, but there’s nothing we can do…there is strong competition, and it’s hard to get in. If you ask for a contract with a small- or medium-sized company, they’ll tell you that you’ll be on probation for a few months, and then they’ll find an excuse to let you go.”

Moreover, there were no benefits offered at all, no pension or medical insurance. “There was no such thing as vacation time, “said the graduate; “if there was work to be done, you did it any time, and then you could rest on Sundays. But you still had to work on Saturdays!”

The company’s tactic, the graduate said, was to wear the sales staff down and then simply replace them with a new batch of recruits when they left. But he was determined to stay and fight for his rights, and led his small cohort of ants into action to demand payment of the wages owed.

Standing up for their rights

Initially they went through the approved channels but soon became disillusioned. “I went to the Labour Inspection Detachment of the Shenhe District Labour Bureau. They told me that they could not deal with this matter; they brushed us off and made excuses. They told us to go to the Administration for Industry and Commerce.”

The Industry and Commerce Administration said they could only address the matter if the company had a business licence; otherwise, it was out of their hands. “Someone at the commerce administration said to me, if you find out they don’t have a licence, call 12315 and we can go inspect them but, even after inspecting them, we can’t get any money back for you. You still have to go to the Labour Bureau for matters about back wages.”

He contacted the Employee Rights Defence Centre under the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in search of legal aid but got nowhere. “They said the evidence I’d collected could not be used; I had daily sign-in sheets, but they didn’t have a manager’s signature, so they said the documents were not valid.” The Centre’s staff had a decent attitude, he said, but there was nothing they could do.

The graduate and his colleagues then went to the Shenyang Municipal Labour Bureau. “I thought the city level might be better,” he explained. However, all he got was bureaucratic delay. He was told that, after submitting numerous materials, he would have to wait one to two months for a response. “I couldn’t wait,” he said; “because I was broke then and relied on those wages to get by…I would have starved to death waiting one or two months. And also I could tell from their attitude that they certainly would not do anything, so I dropped it. We didn’t have any other choice at that point, and went to the media.”

The Liaocheng Evening News (in Shandong) investigated the story and helped the graduate get people from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to inspect the company. Following the inspection, the FDA confiscated between 20,000 and 30,000 yuan worth of the company’s goods. He also “made a phone call to Tongrentang in Beijing. This increased pressure on the company led to the payment on average of 700 yuan per person in back pay, still only about one third of what they were owed.

Meanwhile, the graduate is planning to take the civil service examination and look for more stable employment elsewhere. “We university graduates really are lost in the middle… no one is paying attention to us,” he said. “I went to the employee rights centre, and they said that it was just for employees. I went to the migrant worker rights centre, and they asked if I was a migrant worker. One could say that I am also a migrant worker. But we need some policies;…we university graduates are having a difficult time with unemployment right now.”

This interview was broadcast in three episodes in June 2009. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go to the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links


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