Over 20,000 Walmart employees across China are striking in protest over better pay and working conditions.
Eli Friedman, a labor scholar at Cornell University, told the New York Times in an interview that the Walmart movement was “probably the most substantive example of sustained, cross-workplace, independent worker organizing we’ve ever seen in China’s private sector.”
The series of strikes and protests against the American retail giant comes after a new scheduling system left workers both penniless and worn out.
In order to carry out organizing against Walmart, at least 20,000 of the company’s workers in China have logged on to messaging apps like WeChat.
“We can only expect that online organizing will continue to break down local barriers,” said Keegan Elmer, a researcher at the Hong Kong-based advocacy group China Labour Bulletin.
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Wang Shishu, a laid-off Walmart customer service representative who spends his days babysitting his granddaughter, has taken it upon himself to coordinate organizing on WeChat. He often stays up late at night to trade messages with workers across China.
The country’s service sector has recently seen a rise in worker activism as the government wants to transfer growth from manufacturing.
From July through September, workers have organized more than 120 strikes and protests at service sector firms, including Walmart, which is nearly double the number in 2015.
Walmart did not come to China until 1996 when the company offered relatively high pay compared to domestic competitors. But many new jobs at restaurants, hotels and stores either are part-time or pay low wages with employees saying that they only earn as high as $300 a month.
The company has led a campaign to raise pay in the U.S., but wages in China have barely kept up with inflation.
Walmart has fought against unionization, but the company was pushed by the government in 2006 to create trade unions controlled by the Communist Party. Managed by store managers, these unions were ineffective in this case as the WeChat groups have paid no attention to them whatsoever.
You Tianyu, 45, a customer service employee at a Shenzhen Walmart store, said her managers have been harassing her everyday — she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression after writing a letter to the company president, Doug McMillon, to complain about efforts to keep workers quiet.
When she’s not working, Tianyu spends most of her time in her small apartment, reading over employee manifestos, union laws and pay slips, while thinking of a new way to protest against Walmart.
“I’m on the verge of collapsing,” she told the newspaper. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll last.”