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Workers at state-owned oil company step up demand for equal pay for equal work

By Jennifer Cheung

The 600 auxiliary workers at a major state-owned oil company in Shaanxi, who successfully staged a protest last month against plans to reassign them as agency workers, are continuing to press their additional demands for equal pay for equal work.

The auxiliary workers (家属工) from the service centre affiliated with Shaanxi Yanchang Petroleum said their monthly pay is only 2,000 yuan, compared with 5,000 yuan per month for the small number of formal employees at the company. However the auxiliary workers stressed that they were only demanding parity with the 174 collective workers (集体工) at the plant who earned on average about 3,000 yuan a month including overtime and bonuses.

Emboldened by their initial success in the dispute over agency labour in December, on 14 January this year, workers’ representatives sent an open letter to the provincial trade union in Xi’an stating that they would go on strike from 17 to 21 January if management refused to discuss their demands for equal pay.

A worker’s representative said on 18 January that, since neither the provincial union nor management had responded to their demand, “we are preparing to strike.” Almost 98 percent of the work related to filling the oil tankers is handled by auxiliary workers, the representative explained. If these employees stop working, that would definitely hurt sales, she added.

It was hoped that the threat of strike action would force management to negotiate, but some workers at Yanchang Petroleum doubted the plan’s effectiveness because “management has ways to find other workers to replace us.”

But the worker representative explained: “Going on strike is only one of the means we can use to get our due rights. We don’t want to strike, neither do we want to see the enterprise suffer losses.”

On 19 January, management did hold talks with workers’ representatives and promised that they would convey the workers’ demands to the parent company, Shaanxi Yanchang Petroleum Trade and Industrial, but they didn’t give workers a timeframe for a reply.

One of the workers’ representative said that if the management attempted to play for time, the workers would strike again.

Liu Xuetan, a partner of the Laowei Law Firm and an advisor to the auxiliary workers over their fight against being reassigned as agency workers, said the demand for “equal pay for equal work” was more challenging than the earlier demands.

“Although the law prohibits unequal pay for equal work, when it comes to enforcement, that’s a very different story,” said Liu. “The workers’ fight for equal pay shows workers’ rising rights awareness. But the key to their success will be whether the official trade unions support their endeavour this time.”

He Yufeng, the acting union chairman at the service centre, said the union, together with the human resources and financial departments, had set up a research team to examine the salary gap and is liaising with senior leaders regarding workers’ demands.

“Our trade union should represent workers’ best interests,” said He. “But although equal pay for equal work is a government policy, it is still difficult to implement.”

A worker’s representative pointed out however that Mr He was appointed by the company rather than democratically elected by workers. And another worker said he was actually the secretary to the manager before he accepted the title of acting union chairman.

“During negotiations, our chairman sides with the management rather than workers,” said the workers’ representative.

The service centre employs around 1,144 workers, according to its official website, with auxiliary staff mainly doing logistics work. A story by China Business Daily said the centre earned a net profit of 20 million yuan in 2011. And early in January 2013, the Shaanxi provincial government announced that, given Yanchang Petroleum’s outstanding contribution to oil output in the province, all workers (formal and auxiliary) would be rewarded with a month’s salary. But workers interviewed by CLB said they were unaware of this notice.

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