In China, Walmart faces a potentially historic labor unrest movement that is gaining momentum as employees in Shenzhen have filed lawsuits demanding back pay, going over the heads of their Communist Party controlled unions.
As a response to a new scheduling system which has left employees not only broke but exhausted, Chinese Walmart workers have produced “probably the most substantive example of sustained, cross workplace, independent worker organizing we’ve ever seen in China’s private sector,” Eli Friedman, a labor scholar at Cornell University, told the New York Times.
It will likely come as no surprise that the organizing is being carried out through WeChat. The whole thing is being organized by a laid-off worker surnamed Wang and already counts 20,000 workers, a fifth of the company’s employees, in the WeChat group. Wang, a former customer service representative whom Walmart has fired twice, spends his days babysitting his granddaughter and trading messages with workers across the country, often staying up as late as 2 a.m. in the morning.
So what’s the problem? Well, when Walmart entered China in 1996, workers rushed to the company as it offered relatively high wages compared to its domestic competitors. However, failing to keep up with modern wages, employees say that now a Walmart job doesn’t pay enough to comfortably support a family at just $300 a month. Workers are also complaining about a new scheduling system, implemented to cut costs further, that is leaving employees exhausted.
Oh, and while Walmart has (sorta) led a campaign in the US to raise pay, Chinese wages have barely kept up with inflation. WTF, right?
Around the world, Walmart has resisted unionization. However in 2006, the company was forced by the government to establish Communist Party-controlled trade unions. These unions, usually controlled by store managers, have proven rather impotent in this case, with the WeChat movement simply ignoring them all together.
You Tianyu, a customer service employee at Walmart in Shenzhen, says that she is being harrased daily by her managers after she wrote to Doug McMillon, president of Walmart, to complain about the company’s attempts to silence its aggrieved workers, the New York Times reports.
Since the Chinese economy has slowed, relatively. Episodes of strikes and protests have popped up around the country, mostly targeting a single factory or business. This type of activism is not uncommon, and is usually “dealt with” relatively quickly.
However, the story of Walmart is different. Workers nationally rallying against the same company, bypassing unions controlled by the Communist party and using social media to coordinate their actions, while authorities simply spectate. Well, that’s unheard of.
Why the inaction? Well, authorities have their hands tied by a conflict of interest. On the one hand they have a movement of at least 20,000 angry Walmart employees appealing to the inner communist in every official. By citing slogans first coined by Mao Zedong, the workers are invoking historic struggles against foreign imperialism. On the other, the government will be hoping to nip this kind of activism in the bud.
While they decide what to do, Wang is hoping to pull off a “snowball effect.”
By Seamus Gibson
[Images via Asiabizz]