China’s e-commerce workers protest over wage arrears, contracts

Championed by the Chinese government as the “bright spot” in the future of the economy, China’s e-commerce sector has recently been hit by labour unrest, with three protests in just one week last month.

Delivery workers from cities across the coastal province of Jiangsu staged a protest on 25 August at the east China distribution centre of VIP.com, China’s largest online discount retailer, which is listed on the New York stock exchange. See photo below.

The roughly 20 protesters represented more than 1,000 employees who claimed they were owed five month’s wages or a total of four million yuan. The workers protested for several days, holding banners and even climbing on to the roof of the distribution centre and threatening to jump off, at which point the local police intervened and arrested five workers suspected of being the “primary troublemakers.”

The dispute was exacerbated by VIP.com’s refusal to accept that the workers were actually employed by VIP.com.  The workers were technically employed by Nanjing Pai’er Courier but a worker named Zhu explained that Pai’er had merged with VIP in February, and that wage payments had been irregular ever since.

In a similar dispute in nearby Shanghai on 18 August, workers at Yihaodian.com staged a demonstration and threatened to jump off a company building in protest at management attempts to force them from their jobs.

Soon after Yihaodian.com was acquired by US retail giant Walmart in July this year, about 800 Yihaodian agency workers were told to either sign new contracts or leave. The workers quickly organized and demanded talks with the employer. When talks broke down, the workers took collective action. As one employee explained on social media:

Walmart is trying to get rid of the older workers in order to cut costs. They think Chinese workers are uncultured and don’t understand the law so they can be easily bullied.

In addition, there was another small protest over wage arrears on 20 August at an e-commerce company in Xinyu, Jiangxi.

E-commerce companies, like Alibaba, have expanded rapidly in China with the help of favourable government policies but the recent labour protests indicate that the growth process will not be as smooth as many had hoped. The industry’s use of agency labour, in particular, will very likely generate more disputes in the future.

August saw a spike in the number of disputes in the retail sector in general, ranging from protests at department stores to real estate agents. Services and retail still account for only around ten percent of the total number of incidents recorded on CLB’s Strike Map but absolute numbers are growing this year and already surpass the total from last year.

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