China’s teachers: The unsung heroes of the workers’ movement

10 May 2016

Images of worker activism in China tend to be dominated by factory workers and, more recently, coal miners and steel workers. However, some of the largest, best organized and most determined worker protests of the last few years have been staged by teachers.

Teachers make up less than two percent of China’s overall workforce but they account for about four percent of the strikes and protests recorded on China Labour Bulletin’s Strike Map. Moreover, unlike workers in privately-owned factories, most teachers are employed by the state and their protests often pose a direct challenge to local government officials and administrators.

China Labour Bulletin’s new research report entitled Over-worked and under-paid: The long-running battle of China’s teachers for decent work examines the deep-seated problems in China’s school system and the collective efforts of teachers to overcome low pay, lack of social security, unequal pay and working conditions, and wage arrears.

The report focuses on the huge disparities that exist in the pay and working conditions of teachers in elite schools in major cities and those in poorer rural districts who often struggle just to get by. It also highlights the decades-long injustice suffered by China’s community teachers, who were recruited to help provide every child in the country with nine years’ compulsory education, but who were soon discarded when they sought the same status as teachers within the state system.

There is no real trade union in China that can give teachers a voice in school management or in local government policy formulation. Neither is there any institutional mechanism through which teachers can resolve their grievances, and, as a result, they are often left with no option but to take collective protest action when their interests are threatened.

The report recommends that the Chinese government:

  • Provide additional funding to poor rural school districts and ensure that all state school teachers are guaranteed a living wage.
  • Ensure that all the pay and benefit standards that teachers are entitled to are transparent and publicly available, and stipulate that performance pay should not be used as a means to reduce teachers’ basic pay.
  • Create a mechanism by which teachers can engage in collective bargaining to establish acceptable standards for pay, working hours, benefits etc. within individual schools and across district and regional jurisdictions.
  • Promote the much-needed task of trade union reform. School trade unions should be reorganized and democratic elections introduced so that they can effectively represent the teachers in individual schools and in each school district.

Over-worked and under-paid: The long-running battle of China’s teachers for decent work is published today as a PDF on CLB’s website. For more information on CLB’s extensive series of research reports in English and Chinese, please go to the research report section of the website.

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