Walmart Workers in China Went on Strike to Protest New Schedules

July 6, 2016 Updated: July 7, 2016

Walmart workers in several cities of China began a strike on July 1 against a new scheduling system.  

The strike began with two chain stores in Nanchang, a city in Jiangxi Province, with the Chengdu and Harbin branches (in southwest and northeast China respectively) joining in on July 3 and 4, according to the Sina blog of the Walmart China Employees Association, a voluntary association of Walmart staff.

In mid-May, Walmart carried out a “comprehensive calculation of working hours” and pressured workers to sign onto the new agreement. Resistance came after negotiations between unions and labor officials broke down after about six weeks, and when petitions and protests failed.

The strikers marched into the Walmart stores chanting slogans and carrying placards on their backs held against the trademark red Walmart T-shirts.

Workers cited Article 35 of China’s Labor Contract Law, which they say Walmart has unilaterally violated by enforcing the new scheduling.

Walmart entered the Chinese market in 1996 and has since opened 433 retail stores. The new flexible scheduling allows store managers to assign workers to as many hours as they see fit, with a standard of 174 hours per month (over 40 per week, on average).

The change means a shift in pay from monthly to hourly, which is potentially beneficial to full-time staff, who can enjoy overtime pay during busy hours. Part timers, however, will suffer from a less stable schedule, which renders them unable to hold a second job.

Some workers nonetheless view it as a disguised form of increasing work without a commensurate raise in salary, according to Radio Free Asia. Workers might grind out 11 to 12 hour shifts during busy days, and be assigned few hours on other days, workers said to RFA .

The stores on strike transferred staff from other regions to ease the labor shortage. The Association, in turn, called on workers to resist with countermeasures, including bringing relatives to buy large amounts of goods in store, and then return them immediately after check out so as to paralyze operations.

A scholar of labor relations in China told RFA that Walmart had the best policies for workers, and a good company culture, when it first came to China. Yet now its wages are less than half the national average. Workers have been willing to accept the low pay because of the strict adherence to a 40-hour week, which allows them more personal time, he said. That contract has now been ruptured.

“We’re better off dying sooner rather than later,” the worker’s Association declared, a bleak reference to the choice between resistance now, which may bring increased compensation, and the alternative: a compromise with the company, with the likely result that many older workers will likely be soon forced to retire.

The workers are still willing to work with the company, however. After the store in Nanchang promised to respond within a week, the strikers stood down.