April 7, 2014 1:12 pm

Union star rises from Walmart China labour dispute

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Chinese shoppers leave a Walmart store in Beijing on January 3 2012©AFP

At a rare gathering of prominent workers’ rights activists in central China last week, the late arrival of a short, balding 43-year-old man sent a ripple of excitement through the room.

Over the past four years, Huang Xingguo has risen from cashier to middle-management at a Walmart store in Changde, Hunan province, that was closed on March 19 as part of a broader restructuring of the retailing group’s struggling China operations.

In the context of the gathering – organised by Duan Yi, one of the country’s best-known labour lawyers – the unassuming and softly spoken Mr Huang was a rock star.

As the head of the store’s grassroots union chapter affiliated with the government-sanctioned All China Federation of Trade Unions, Mr Huang is leading a group of more than 70 Walmart employees demanding higher compensation from the world’s largest retailer.

Such determined opposition from an ACFTU chapter head is highly unusual in China’s rapidly evolving labour movement. The ACFTU and its affiliates have traditionally taken a back seat when labour conflicts erupt, leaving affected workers to fend for themselves.

It has in the past been accused by labour activists of being more interested in collecting lucrative payroll fees than fighting for workers’ rights.

Labour activists and academics say Mr Huang’s leadership is the main reason opposition to Walmart’s closure of the Changde store is continuing, while protests at two other outlets in Anhui province quickly fizzled out.

More importantly, they feel his campaign offers a rare chance to spur the ACFTU, a sprawling bureaucracy with more than 900,000 officials, into action against one of the world’s most powerful companies.

The ACFTU chapter at an IBM factory in southern China, for example, played no role in a strike by workers upset about the terms of their transfer to Lenovo as part of its $2.3bn acquisition of the US computer company’s x86 server business.

“Before, workers would fight for the minimum wage, welfare and other basic issues,” said Chang Kai, a Beijing-based academic who is advising Mr Huang. “But now workers want higher wages, better treatment and their fair share of the company’s fruits.”

There was no chance for us to express our views. The government acted like a judge. Walmart would always win and the union was always wrong

- Huang Xingguo, union leader at Walmart’s Changde store

Many labour experts say the incidents at Walmart’s Changde outlet and IBM’s Shenzhen factory highlight the need for the ACFTU to offer more support.

But Mr Huang complains that initial sympathy from the ACFTU’s municipal chapter in Changde quickly wilted in the face of a more hardline attitude from government officials, many of them from the local commercial bureau that oversees investments from companies such as Walmart.

According to Mr Huang, meetings hosted by the government to negotiate a settlement between the two sides became what he describes as “criticism sessions” targeted at the workers.

“There was no chance for us to express our views,” he told the Financial Times. “The government acted like a judge. Walmart would always win and the union was always wrong.” Government and ACFTU officials in Changde declined to comment.

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Walmart notes that most of the 20 recently implemented store closures have proceeded without incident and says it has made every effort to find alternative employment for affected workers. It also says it has followed the letter of the law regarding notice periods and compensation packages.

“We did everything we are obliged to do by law and more,” said Ray Bracy, a senior Walmart China executive. “More than half the associates accepted the compensation [and] know it was fair and compliant.”

Mr Huang counters that more than half of the store’s employees are still in his camp and insists that they were given less than one month’s notice of their store’s closure and are demanding twice the compensation on offer.

“Walmart’s compensation offer for the Changde workers may meet legal requirements, but there isn’t anything in the law that says workers can’t demand more,” added Mr Duan

Additional reporting by Wan Li

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