China: Volkswagen workers’ struggle continues

“Same work, unequal wages” – workers’ slogan outside VW factory in Changchun.

Three worker representatives arrested as agency workers continue their struggle for equal pay reporters

Three worker representatives at Volkswagen’s joint venture in Changchun, Jilin province, have been detained by police. The arrests on charges of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” are part of a deepening nationwide crackdown by the Chinese state against workers organising to fight for their rights.

The Changchun trio have been to the fore in a year-long struggle by around 3,000 agency workers, whose pay is just half the level of workers on permanent contracts. China has over 60 million agency workers facing similar unequal treatment. Often – as seems to be the case at Volkswagen – this is in flagrant breach of China’s labour laws. These latest protests in China are similar to a wave of struggle in South Korea and other Asian countries against ‘casualisation’ which is used as a tool by the capitalists to hold down wages and benefits.

“Same work, unequal wages” – workers’ slogan outside VW factory in Changchun.

Five years in prison

The three workers, Fu Tianbo, Wang Shuai, and Ai Zhenyu, were arrested on 26 May. According to the Hong Kong-based NGO China Labour Bulletin, Wang and Ai have been released while Fu remains in custody. Despite their release, Wang and Ai could still face criminal charges. The Chinese dictatorship is viciously repressive against any attempts by workers to organise themselves. The charge of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” carries a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment.

The Changchun plant is one of four operated by Volkswagen under a joint venture arrangement with state-owned First Auto World Group (FAW). China is a decisive market and production base for the German automaker which is now the world’s biggest. China accounted for nearly 40 percent of Volkswagen’s global sales last year – 3.98 million units – almost as many as it sold in the whole of Europe.

Last year, the agency workers at the Changchun plant launched a campaign for equal pay including demonstrations, online organising, and a legal challenge against the company. The response from management has been to drag out talks while at the same time police intimidation of workers has increased.

To cover itself against negative publicity arising from the workers’ protests, Volkswagen released a statement earlier this year stating that its operations in China take seriously the concerns of employees. The company’s actions however have not matched its words!

“Equal pay for equal work”

In February, more than 500 workers staged an audacious demonstration outside Changchun’s labour arbitration committee under the slogan “equal pay for equal work” after the committee failed to deliver a response to their claims. Already last year the workers approached the official ACFTU – China’s only legal ‘union’ – but true to form the so-called union has offered no support.

According to China’s labour code, as revised in 2012, agency workers can only be used by an employer for six months after which time they should be offered full-time contracts. According to the law, temporary contracts (agency work) only apply to positions that “do not exist for more than six months”. The FAW-Volkswagen workers say many workers are still on temporary contracts after more than ten years at the company. They say the FAW-Volkswagen owes up to 200,000 euros per person in unpaid wages.

“Refusal to pay the same salary is both against Chinese law and [VW’s] Temporary Work Charter,” Hamburg-based lawyer Rolf Geffken told the German newspaper Deutsche Welle.

Exemplary campaign

With the law clearly on their side, the FAW-Volkswagen workers have organised several other protests in an attempt to engage various branches of the government in the case. This has met only with hollow promises and increased intimidation from the company and the police. Despite this, the workers’ exemplary campaign of protests has continued.

Police have stepped up their surveillance of the workers and worker representatives have been singled out for sanctions by management – reassigning them to other jobs or increasing their workload. A new demonstration arranged on 21 May to coincide with the Changchun Marathon seems to have been the spark for the police to move against the three worker representatives. They clearly hope that this action will cow the workers into calling off their campaign of protests.

This struggle is symptomatic of others sweeping across China, with up to 20,000 strikes breaking out last year (mostly unrecorded). Companies are pushing back against those few pieces of legislation that have given stronger protection to workers. Law breaking by the capitalists is rampant in respect of workers’ rights as it is with public safety, pollution and other laws. With the economy in trouble the state is less inclined to tolerate workers’ protests and thus we are seeing increased repression even when the law is clearly on the side of the workers.

Socialists and worker activists will not be intimidated. We will step up our efforts to publicise and protest all injustices and find every means to support workers in struggle.

End unequal pay and conditions!