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China: Sanitation workers reportedly work under harsh and exploitative conditions

Author: China Labour Bulletin (Hong Kong), Published on: 4 November 2019

“China’s sanitation workers need more than just sympathy from the union”, 31 October 2019

… Yu [a 57-year-old migrant worker from Hunan] was summoned to the Changxing sub-district sanitation centre in northern Guangzhou and forced to sign a termination agreement on the grounds that he had consistently violated work discipline and exceeded the annual demerit point threshold of 20 points. Two days later he was found dead in his small rented room still wearing his work uniform…

Police are investigating the case and there is no definitive link yet between Yu’s dismissal and his sudden death. Nevertheless, the case has highlighted once again the harsh and exploitative working conditions that China’s sanitation workers have to endure.

Workers at the Changxing sanitation centre explained that it was common practice for employees to be fined for the slightest infraction of the staff code such as reporting late for work or taking an unauthorised rest. Deductions of 50 yuan for each point significantly reduced their monthly salary of around 3,000 yuan, they said. The statutory minimum wage in Guangzhou is currently just 2,100 yuan per month.

The system used in Changxing, whereby 20 demerit points leads to automatic dismissal, is widely replicated throughout China by companies contracted by local governments to clean city streets and dispose of refuse. However, the system’s legality has been questioned on the grounds that accumulated minor infractions do not constitute the “serious dereliction of duty… causing substantial damage to the Employer,” needed for dismissal, according to Article 39 (3) of the Labour Contract Law. Employees may be dismissed if they “materially breach the Employer’s rules and regulations” but these rules should first be negotiated with the trade union or workers’ representatives rather than being arbitrability imposed by management…

There is clearly a lot of work for China’s trade unions to do in terms of organizing sanitation workers, improving their pay and working conditions, and countering the exploitative management practices that are so pervasive in the industry. 

So far however, the official trade union has done very little except offer platitudes…

Sanitation workers are often denied proper employment contracts and social insurance benefits, as well as compensation when their employment is terminated. Many workers are denied these benefits because they are over the official retirement age… and as such not considered employees. Instead they are classified as service providers, not protected by labour law.

Basic wages for sanitation workers have always been very low and it has been a constant struggle for workers to get a pay raise that can just about keep up with the increased cost of living in their city. Some of the most successful campaigns for better pay and conditions in the past have been in Guangzhou where workers had support from student groups and local civil society organizations…

The ACFTU [All-China Federation of Trade Unions] could learn a lot from organizing ability and solidarity shown by the Guangzhou sanitation workers and the civil society labour organization that played a key role in training and advising them on collective bargaining, electing worker representatives and negotiating strategies…

This would of course require local trade union officials to break with their longstanding tradition of inactivity. Rather than just sit in their comfortable offices and wait for the workers to come to them, officials would need to go out on to the streets and talk to sanitations workers about their work, the problems they have, and what the union can do to solve them.

[Also referred to the Nanjing West River Environmental Services company]

Read the full post here