Workers stand in protest outside the headquarters of the Guoce Group in Beijing on November 16, 2016. About 40 workers from 12 companies have accused the company of failing to pay them for construction work on a project in Shunyi. The workers claim they have not been paid for work done three years ago. The protest slogans read, "If you owe money you should pay it back". / AFP / GREG BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
Workers protest over salary arrears outside the headquarters of the Guoce Group in Beijing in November 2016 © AFP

Chinese labour unrest extended its footprint last year as workforce tensions that have long beset the manufacturing and construction industries began to hit the fast-growing sectors on which Beijing has pinned its hopes for future growth.

While the 2,663 strikes and protests recorded in 2016 by China Labour Bulletin marked a fall of 112 on the previous year, the total was still almost double that of 2014, with the spread to new sectors partly offsetting a drop in manufacturing unrest.

“The new economy is rife with the old labour problems of the past,” said Keegan Elmer, a researcher at the Hong Kong-based workers’ rights organisation.

China’s labour supply is tightening as fewer young hands join the migrant workforce on which manufacturing and construction have long relied — driving up wages, prompting salary arrears and threatening older workers’ social insurance payments when employers close shop or move without warning.

Yet couriers and salespeople employed in sectors such as retail and logistics are increasingly faced with similar issues.

Incidents of industrial action doubled for retail workers, grew by a quarter in transport and a fifth in the services sector. For the first time their combined total exceeded manufacturing incidents, which fell by almost a third. In construction, still responsible for the largest share, incidents rose only 8 per cent.

The true level of Chinese labour unrest is likely to be much higher. CLB’s tally is comprised largely of online reports of worker action about which the group can confirm basic details, and Mr Elmer estimates it accounts for just 10 per cent of the real total in light of far bigger but unverified numbers produced by Chinese activists or sporadically made public by the government.

Official statistics that see the light of day do suggest deeper problems. In Zhejiang — a prosperous coastal province home to the headquarters of Alibaba — there were more than 1,700 incidents over arrears from January to October last year, according to comments from an official with China’s Ministry of Health and Human Resources.

The official told Communist party mouthpiece the People’s Daily in January that heavy industries remained “disaster areas” for wage arrears, adding that new conflicts were becoming more visible as the number of arrears cases in “internet plus” industries was “clambering higher at high speed”.

Workers have also harnessed the internet to enhance their organisational capacity, as demonstrated last year by a series of strikes against Walmart co-ordinated on the social messaging platform WeChat when the retailer changed its working hours policy.

Where previous major actions might involve all the employees in a single workplace — sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands — the Walmart strikes hit stores across the country and involved only partial participation from relatively smaller local workforces, said Anita Chan, a professor of sociology at Australian National University.

Prof Chan said the Walmart strikes could hardly be considered a victory for workers but added that the movement they created was easily the largest in recent years “in the sense that it involved so many workplaces using social media — this is definitely new”.

China’s only sanctioned union, the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions, has not opposed workers protesting against Walmart but it has also refrained from offering them substantial support.

The ACFTU’s inability to prevent arrears is reflected annually by a peak in labour unrest around the lunar new year, particularly in the construction sector where full payment for a project is often not made until just before the long national holiday when hundreds of millions of migrant workers head home to visit family.

In a recent article published on the central government’s website, Premier Li Keqiang was shown visiting migrant workers in rural Yunnan province ahead of the new year holiday. When Mr Li asked one about his annual salary, the worker revealed he was owed Rmb50,000 in back pay for two years spent as a maintenance worker in the inland metropolis of Chongqing.

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