Workers at Wal-Mart stores take action over working hours, ineffective unions

By Zhao Yusha Source:Global Times Published: 2016/7/11 18:53:00

A child walks past an employee at a Wal-Mart in Shenzhen, in South China's Guangdong Province on November 11, 2015. Photo: IC

 Hundreds of striking Wal-Mart employees across China are waiting to find out if they will go back to work or continue their protest over what they say are unfair new working hour rules.

On Thursday, employee representatives met with management at Wal-Mart headquarters in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province and handed over their request that the new "flexible working hour system" be scrapped after Wal-Mart employees in Nanchang, Chengdu and Harbin started striking at the start of this month.

The new rules allow managers to allocate workers any number of hours per day or per week at short notice as long as each employee works a total of 174 hours per month.

Many employees oppose the new system as they "can no longer make [personal] plans in advance," said an employee surnamed Yang, in the Chengdu store.

The strike may spread to other stores if Wal-Mart's reply is unsatisfactory, employees told the Global Times.

Worker representative Xiao Yu, requested on Thursday meeting with the presidents of Wal-Mart's official labor union, Ai Ronggang and Wang Ying, as many workers feel they did not protect their rights. Xiao Yu was told they are both "absent."

"We are having the strike only because of the labor union," said Xiao Yu, an employee of a Shenzhen Wal-Mart store. "On June 1, they represented us by signing the contract approving the flexible working hour system without even letting us know."

In 1996, Wal-Mart entered the Chinese mainland but refused to permit unions until 2006, facing pressure to do so from the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), said Wang Songjiang, a researcher that specializes in labor relations at China Institute of Industrial Relations.

"Now some 400 out of 433 Wal-Mart shops have a labor union," Li Yin, Wal-Mart PR worker told the Global Times. When asked why it took Wal-Mart 10 years to establish the unions, Li said, "other foreign companies are no better, some don't have labor unions yet."

Failed union

In 2004, many famous foreign enterprises such as Wal-Mart, Samsung and Dell had not established unions in China, according to

Xinhuanet reported that 91.9 percent of the top 500 companies in China have today established their own unions. The majority of foreign-owned companies in Shanghai have unions, an employee in Shanghai Federation of Trade Unions, confirmed with the Global Times.

"The problem is that unions in China more focus more on stabilizing workers rather than protecting their rights," said Wang.

"Few Wal-Mart labor unions were willing to speak for workers before. Now the presidents of Wal-Mart's unions are not selected by workers, but are appointed by the managers instead," said Zhang.

Chinese trade union laws stipulate that unions should safeguard the rights of workers and should be formed by the working classes of their own free will.

"China does not have punitive measures for  enterprises who do not obey the law," said Liu Junhai, a member of the ACFTU's law counsel.

"Governments love these foreign companies which can boost local GDP growth, so they could not care less about their labor unions," Liu added.

The way out

When asked about a solution to this problem, Wang said workers are the main force for change and that "they should have the courage to fight for themselves."

The Shanghai Federation of Trade Unions told the Global Times that they have shifted their focus to helping workers for their rights instead of assisting enterprises with labor unions.

In 2013, Wang Yafang, a former employee of a Shenzhen Wal-Mart, won a case against her labor union after arguing that the latter did not protect workers' rights during a labor dispute,  the first case of an individual suing their union in China, reported.

Newspaper headline: Three strikes

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