Guangzhou street cleaners promised 20 percent pay increase after city-wide strikes

By Jennifer Cheung

The annual meeting of the Guangdong People’s Congress this year was marked by garbage piled up in the streets of the provincial capital Guangzhou as hundreds of sanitation workers in more than five districts around city went on strike for higher pay and social insurance payments.

Cleaners complained they were not properly compensated for their work during public holidays and that, for some, their actual take-home pay after deductions was less than 1,000 yuan a month, basically the same as it was ten years ago.

After one strike in Yuexiu district, the employer did promise an additional monthly subsidy of 200 yuan and another 200 yuan as a Spring Festival bonus. But the workers were still not happy and demanded that their monthly salary be doubled from the current level of 1,600 yuan to 3,000 yuan per month. And workers in Panyu district threatened to strike again this week unless their demands for an increase in salary from 1,100 yuan to 2,000 yuan per month were addressed.

The sanitation workers gained a lot of public support through online activists such as Chen Weixiang, a student from Sun Yat-sen University, who issued an open letter on 30 January, urging the city to conduct a comprehensive survey of the compensation package offered to Guangzhou’s street cleaners, saying that: “The cleaners’ salary is a test of the city’s conscience.”

Eventually, the city government bowed to pressure and promised to address the workers’ complaints and local media reported that pay for the city’s sanitation workers would increase by around 20 percent, or about 400 yuan a month on average.

Experts say the long-standing problem of low pay stems primarily from the contract system adopted by the city government in 2001. Zhao Dongping, secretary of Guangzhou Sanitation Industry Association claimed that the government doesn’t have sufficient funds for cleaners, and doesn’t factor in normal benefits when it comes to public bidding. “That is the primary reason why it’s difficult for cleaners to have a pay increase,” he said.

In order to win a bid from the Guangzhou City Administration Committee, the government department responsible for the city’s sanitation contractors, bidding companies are inclined to set their budget closely in line with the minimum wage. A public tender published in 2011 inviting bids for a five-year cleaning services contract for the streets around the Pazhou International Exhibition Centre, for example, only mentioned the cap price without setting a minimum price for bidders.

Guangzhou has nearly 40,000 street cleaners; 65 percent of them work for contracted sanitation companies, and 70 percent are migrant workers, the city’s Mayor Chen Jianhua, told the media last week.

Meanwhile, some of those sanitation workers have already managed to negotiate a better deal for themselves through collective bargaining. In an agreement reached late last year, about 40 cleaners in Panyu district demanded and got the payment of social security benefits dating back 16 years. The sanitation workers were assisted in their efforts by a local labour rights group and the Laowei law firm in Shenzhen but as a member of the Panyu labour rights group said: “It was the workers’ representatives themselves who did the actual collective bargaining with management.”

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