China’s truck drivers strike over stagnant pay, high fuel costs and arbitrary fines

Truck drivers across China have staged nationwide protests and refused to work over the weekend. “We can’t take it anymore, we have no choice but to stand together!” read a widely circulated call for unity on social media.

The unsigned message calling on “30 million truck drivers across China” claimed that transport fees were too low to be sustainable and that fuel costs have been steadily increasing over the last few years.

“We won’t starve to death if we don’t work for a few days starting 10 June, but we will certainly not survive with the ridiculously low transport fees we are being paid,” stressed the strike call. Threats of retaliation were also issued against drivers who did not join the strike “anyone still hauling cargo be warned: we will smash your vehicle,” the message said.

Since Friday 8 June, collective protests by truck drivers have been recorded in at least a dozen locations in Shandong, Sichuan, Chongqing, Anhui, Guizhou, Jiangxi, Shanghai, Hubei, Henan and Zhejiang. Videos of long caravans of trucks bearing banners and slogans circulated on Chinese social media. However, many posts were quickly deleted by censors and this combined with the complete silence of the official media on the subject has made it virtually impossible to assess the actual extent of the strike.

Truck drivers on strike in Chengdu, Sichuan

Truck drivers, most of them independent contractors who have to continuously take orders to stay solvent, argue that they have little if any profit margin since fuel costs have been on the rise and transportation rates have failed to catch up.

Another common grievance raised by truck drivers was the arbitrary application of legal sanctions for traffic violations etc, which results in constant and unpredictable financial losses along the road.

Drivers also cited the monopolistic practices of dominant online platform Yun Man Man as a factor in their call for a national strike. On 4 June, Yun Man Man implemented a new policy which prevented truck drivers and customers from contacting each other and forcing transactions to be conducted only on the online app, which then determines the haulage rate.

Yun Man Man claims that 95 percent of all road transport transactions go through its app and that it has almost four million members, 78 percent of all long-haul drivers. Online long-haul transport platforms, inspired by the apparent success of car hailing apps like Didi, have been engaged in a cutthroat battle for market dominance; last year, for example, a police investigation was conducted into Huo Che Bang after Yun Man Man accused it of data theft and sabotage of their business operations. The two companies later merged into a single market-dominanting entity.

In April this year, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) launched a membership recruitment campaign especially targeting the logistics and transportation sector, an indication that the official union was completely aware of the potential labour relations conflict areas in China’s fast evolving economy, but evidently that was not enough to prevent this weekend’s strike.

Since late April, there have been cross-country strikes and protests by tower crane operators, van drivers and food delivery workers, and although it may still be too early to say that new chapter of sectoral collective action has already started in China, the trend for cross-country organising is clearly visible.

A comprehensive study on labour conditions in the long-haul logistics industry, released in April this year showed that more than 71 percent of China’s truck drivers owned their own vehicles and many had taken on heavy debts to do so. In order to pay off the debt as quickly as possible, drivers are constantly on the road, eating and sleeping in their cabs to save time and money.

This mostly masculine and fragmented social group, the report argues, relies on mobile technology and social media “to build up a particular type of solidarity,” characterised by the term “kayou” (trucker friends) by which truckers refer to themselves. “The online solidarity may be virtual, but by no means it is weak,” the report emphasises.

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