Collective protests decline but worker grievances remain unresolved

27 January 2021

China’s economic slowdown, combined with rapidly shifting patterns of employment and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, resulted in a marked decline in the number of collective protests by workers last year. 

China Labour Bulletin’s Strike Map recorded just 800 collective protests by workers in 2020, compared with 1,385 incidents in 2019 and 1,706 in 2018. 

A lower number of protests, however, is by no means a sign of better working conditions in China. In fact, CLB’s new Workers’ Calls-for-Help Map shows that many workers faced even greater difficulties last year and long-standing grievances remained unresolved.

Instead of staging collective protests that risk infection from Covid-19 or repression by the authorities, many workers now make appeals directly on social media to air their grievances. These appeals are often lost in the mass of social media traffic in China. As such, CLB’s new Calls-for-Help Map aims to collect important cases that could and should benefit from government, trade union and media intervention. Since its launch in September 2020, more than 175 cases have been collected on the Calls-for-Help Map.

Both the Strike Map and the Workers’ Calls-for-Help Map are dominated by workers’ demands for payment of wages in arrears, a worker demand that appears in more than 80 percent of the cases in both data sets and will likely feature even more prominently in the runup to the Lunar New Year Holiday in mid-February when migrant workers traditionally demand long-overdue payments. 

The government has announced countless legislative and administrative initiatives over the last two decades in an attempt to tackle wage arrears. But the problem has stubbornly persisted, largely because of the inability or refusal of local authorities to enforce the law and protect basic labour rights.

The construction industry has long been notorious for wage arrears, and construction workers accounted for 45 percent of the Strike Map cases last year, and 68 percent of cases so far collected on the Calls-for-Help Map. Wage arrears disputes flared up last year in both infrastructure and property development projects, renovation projects, and even the construction of emergency hospitals to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In addition, the Calls-for-Help Map has recorded a particularly high proportion of wage arrears cases involving construction workers in the far-western region of Xinjiang. Most of these cases involved ethnically Han workers who had migrated to the region to work on new infrastructure and development projects. 

The proportion of collective protests in the manufacturing sector continued to decline last year, accounting for just 11 percent of the cases recorded on the Strike Map in 2020. A significant number of these protests were at electronics factories, which now often rely on short-term agency labour to meet increasing demand. For example, thousands of temporary workers staged a mass protest outside the Pegatron factory in Shanghai on 19 December after managers at the Taiwan-owned electronics company ordered them to relocate to another facility in Kunshan.

One of the most notable examples of how the patterns of worker protests changed last year was in the food delivery sector, which saw 57 collective protests in 2018, 45 in 2019, but just three last year. As the People (人物) magazine expose in September 2020 showed, pay and working conditions actually got worse last year, but the ability of workers to organize was compromised by the flood of an estimated half a million new workers, many laid off from factories, coming into the industry.

In the highly competitive express delivery sector, however, there were 31 strikes and protests, mainly over defaults in wage payments. These struggles were intensely debated on Chinese social media during the annual Singles Day shopping bonanza, when many temporary workers were cheated out of their pay.

Singles Day also illustrated the serious problem of excessive workloads and long working hours in China. Overwork affects tens of millions of employees in both the manufacturing and service industries and is a particular problem in the tech industry, where employees are routinely forced to work 12 hours per day, six days per week. The sudden deaths of two Pinduoduo employees over the New Year tragically highlighted the intense pressure tech workers have to endure.

Unless workers’ pay and conditions begin to improve this year as the economy gradually recovers, it is likely that collective protests, as well as workers’ calls for help, will start to rise again. Indeed, the Strike Map recorded a monthly high of 102 incidents in December alone, about 13 percent of the annual total last year.

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