In one of the more bizarre labour disputes to emerge this year, a 60-year-old cleaner at a shopping mall in the southern city of Dongguan has been sacked after exposing his employer’s policy of paying “young and good-looking” cleaners 150 yuan more each month.
Last month, Wang Yuye discovered that while most of the close to one hundred cleaners at the One Mall in downtown Dongguan got 1,650 yuan a month, a select few “young and good-looking” staff got 1,800 yuan.
Understandably annoyed, Wang and group of his “old and ugly” co-workers went to their boss at Shangcheng Property Services, which had the cleaning contract for the mall, to complain and demand that they all get equal pay for equal work. They were rebuffed and Wang had 500 yuan docked from his salary for “instigating trouble” (带头闹事).
Even more annoyed now, Wang called the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, which sent a journalist to the mall to investigate. He was told by a cleaning company shift leader that six staff did indeed get 150 yuan a month more but that this was because they worked on the first floor of the mall where there was a higher flow of customer traffic.
Soon after getting the story, the journalist got a call from Wang saying: “I’ve been sacked.” Wang’s boss reportedly told him: “Don’t come into work tomorrow. This decision comes from the head of the company.” No explanation was given.
The Dongguan labour inspectorate has condemned Shangcheng’s salary system as “employment discrimination” and has vowed to rectify the situation. However, given the less than impressive record of China’s labour inspectorates in coming to the aid of workers, I will not be holding my breath. We called the Dongguan labour inspectorate several times today and no one ever picked up the phone.
While this case is clearly ridiculous, it underlines how many employers in China still seek to arbitrarily set the pay and working conditions of their employees without once consulting the workers and then take retaliatory action against those employees who dare to voice their dissatisfaction.
However, the case also shows that workers in low-paid jobs like cleaners are not afraid to stand up to their employer. As we have seen on numerous occasions in the past few years, sanitation workers in Guangdong have been able, through collective action, to force their employer or the local government to make concessions and improve their pay and working conditions.