China’s teachers continue the fight for decent work

Some of the largest, best organized and most determined worker protests in China in recent years have been staged by teachers. China’s teachers make up less than two percent of the overall workforce but they account for about four percent of the strikes and protests recorded on China Labour Bulletin’s Strike Map.

Last month, China Labour Bulletin published a new research report entitled Over-worked and under-paid: The long-running battle of China’s teachers for decent work, which examines the deep-seated problems in China’s school system and the collective efforts of teachers to overcome low pay, lack of social security, unequal pay and wage arrears.

The report focused on the collective actions taken by teachers in 2014 and 2015 however teachers’ strikes and protests have continued to break out this year. Two of the most significant recent actions are highlighted in this month’s newsletter.

Protest in Hengyang over wage arrears

More than 1,000 elementary and middle school teachers from all over Hengyang county in Hunan protested at the county government building on 3 May demanding years of unpaid wages, benefits and social insurance contributions.

Protests continued the following day, the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. Hundreds of police arrested more than ten teacher representatives, one for reportedly leading the teachers in the national anthem, and another for accepting an interview with the media. Teachers held support demonstrations for those taken to detention centers. Even when some of those arrested were officially released by police, two teachers refused to leave prison, demanding an explanation from the government.

In an online poll by Sogou News, 94 percent of the nearly 40,000 respondents felt that the teachers had no choice but to take action, while only four percent believed teachers should have used more “reasonable” methods.

Rural teachers protest poverty-level wages

Hundreds of elementary and middle school teachers went on strike for two days in mid-May in Tongcheng county, Hubei, protesting abysmally low pay. Teachers from across the county held a sit-in at the county government building, stretching protest banners across the front gate. Police arrived on the scene though no confrontation occurred.

In an open letter, the teachers listed ten grievances, ranging from a lack of rural area subsidies to under contribution of social insurance. Their central complaint, however, was their shockingly low wages. Several teachers circulated their banking receipts showing their take home pay for the previous month was as low as 300 to 500 yuan.

A Radio Free Asia interview with Tongcheng teachers revealed that the situation was even worse for younger teachers, many of whom had not received medical insurance cards and relied on money borrowed from their parents just to get by. 

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