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Every year on Labour Day, China’s leaders make a big show of thanking the country’s workers for their endeavours and their contributions to the national economy. It is a well-rehearsed and rather tired publicity stunt not normally worthy of comment but this year Premier Wen Jiabao did something a bit more interesting.
He visited bus crews and sanitation workers, two groups of workers who have been at the forefront of labour activism over the last few years. Indeed, outside the manufacturing sector, which continues to generate the majority of strikes in China, transport and sanitation workers are some of the workers most likely to stage protests.
Bus drivers and crews have staged frequent protests over the last three years over a variety of issues including changes in management practices and government regulations, competition from other transport lines and the price of fuel, while sanitation workers have demanded better pay and conditions or the payment of wages in arrears. See CLB’s research report on the workers’ movement 2009-2011 for more details.
Sanitation workers have little job security, work long hours, often overnight, and are still among some of the lowest-paid in China. In fact, the day immediately after the premier’s visit, the Chinese media revealed that about 700 sanitation workers in a town near the northern city of Xi’an were owed four months’ wages (3,200 yuan) in arrears. One of the street cleaners told a journalist, “we have not been able to buy any meat this month; if we don’t get paid I will have to look for work elsewhere.”
When visiting the Beijing Environment Sanitation Engineering Group on May Day, Wen called on Beijing’s citizens to respect these frequently under-appreciated workers and thank them for their efforts in cleaning the city. And he had a similar message when visiting Beijing’s bus drivers and conductors, saying they too should win society-wide support.
Of course, this is hardly an endorsement of labour activism or a call to strike action, and Wen Jiabao is known as “China’s best actor,” so perhaps we should not read too much into this performance. But his choice of workers to visit on May Day is at least of symbolic importance and maybe something more. After the story about the sanitation workers in Shangluo, near Xi’an, came out, the local authorities immediately agreed to pay their wage arrears after new contracts were signed this month.