Migrant workers in China

100 Shanghai cleaners stage four-day rally over pay cuts as labour protests grow across China

As sanitary workers stopped work, internet censors scrambled to scrub social media clean of photos, videos and comments documenting the industrial action

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2018, 9:16am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 June, 2018, 1:08pm

About 100 street cleaners in Shanghai staged a four-day rally outside a government building last week to protest against pay cuts, amid a rising trend for such shows of public disobedience by workers on China’s mainland.

The rally, at Changning District’s Greening and City Appearance Administration, happened after several street cleaning companies reduced working hours and pay rates, the district government said in a statement on Monday on WeChat, the mainland’s most popular messaging app.

It did not say how many workers had been affected by the cuts or whether the industrial action prompted a change of policy by the companies involved.

Pictures, video footage and comments about the protest were widely shared online, but all had been deleted by internet censors as of Monday. One clip published on Twitter showed security officers forcibly removing one of the protesters from the scene.

“Dozens of workers were protesting against the pay cuts,” a state media source told the South China Morning Post on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak on the matter.

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Several local residents said they counted about 100 people outside the government building.

The issue appeared to have been resolved on Monday, as several cleaning vehicles were spotted in the neighbourhood and a female sweeper was seen at work close to the scene of the rally, although she declined the Post’s request for a comment.

Municipal authorities in Shanghai were in the process of talking to the city’s street cleaning contractors to ensure fair treatment for workers, the district government said.

“The administration has asked Gaojie and other firms to improve communication … with the cleaners and make sure they get reasonable pay,” it said.

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The statement was referring to Shanghai Gaojie Environment Cleaning Service Co, which also declined to comment on the protest.

According to an earlier report by the official local newspaper Liberation Daily, as of September 2015, Shanghai had 142 street cleaning companies with a combined workforce of more than 53,000, many of them migrant workers employed on a contractual basis. Their average monthly wage was about 4,000 yuan (US$640) a month.

Wang Jiangsong, a Beijing-based scholar who specialises in labour issues on China’s mainland, said the rally appeared to have been a knee-jerk response to the pay cuts.

“It seems the strike was a completely spontaneous movement by the workers, as in the current climate not many organisations or individuals would dare to help them organise it,” he said, adding that further disputes were likely this year as China’s economic growth slows.

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According to China Labour Bulletin, a non-governmental group that promotes workers’ rights, labour disputes on the mainland have been climbing steadily since 2011.

A total of 440 such protests were reported in the first quarter of this year, a rise of almost 90 per cent from the same period of 2017, it said.

Employers’ failure to make social insurance contributions, unfair treatment and pay cuts were among the main causes of the disputes, it said, adding that workers were showing a growing willingness to stand up for their rights.

Last month, disgruntled workers at a factory in Guangzhou, capital of southern China’s Guangdong province, staged an eight-day strike to protest against low wages and long working hours.

The industrial action ended after the company, which makes luxury handbags for the US fashion label Michael Kors, gave in to their demands.

Additional reporting by Zhou Xin and Jane Li