Workers across China protest wave of layoffs, unpaid wages

By Janet Post
February 13, 2023
Hundreds of workers at Alltest Biotech factory in Hangzhou, China, protest Jan. 9, part of actions across the country against layoffs, outstanding back pay. Police arrested dozens here.
Hundreds of workers at Alltest Biotech factory in Hangzhou, China, protest Jan. 9, part of actions across the country against layoffs, outstanding back pay. Police arrested dozens here.

Local governments across China are increasingly trying to crack down on protests by workers fighting spreading layoffs and growing unpaid wages. They have “threatened to punish workers who take ‘extremist measures,’ such as protests blocking traffic or outside government offices to get the money they are owed,” reported the Financial Times  Jan. 24. 

Workers’ actions increased in the days leading up to Lunar New Year celebrations, when millions of workers who have migrated from rural areas to work jobs in the cities travel home to visit families and friends. The government in Beijing had largely barred such visits for the last three years during far-reaching COVID-19 lockdowns that have now been lifted. 

Bosses at government-run companies conducting mandatory COVID testing amassed fortunes during the pandemic. They are now laying off workers or closing operations entirely since the government ended mass nationwide testing Dec. 7. “Many among China’s armies of ‘big whites,’ low-level government workers charged with enforcing COVID restrictions and named after their signature white hazmat suits, have been let go,” the New York Times  said. 

“Lab testing firms that earlier reaped huge windfalls began reporting that governments were late on payments, leaving them exposed to bad debt,” the Times  reported. Several provincial governments have now begun charging workers for COVID tests. 

In Chongqing hundreds of workers protested Jan. 7, chanting “Pay me back!” They confronted police attacks after being locked out by Zybio, which manufactures COVID test kits. “We have tried every peaceful means to resolve the issue and it didn’t work,” said one protester. 

In Hangzhou, workers demonstrated after the Acon Biotech plant told them they would be laid off for two weeks in January leading up to the holiday, leaving them short of the money they’d hope to bring home. When workers threatened to jump off the factory roof, the company finally paid them $445. 

Also in Hangzhou hundreds of workers demonstrated at the Alltest Biotech factory protesting that those hired as temps were being paid less than those hired “permanently.” Dozens were hauled away by the cops.  

Construction shutdowns

Another industry wracked by layoffs and unpaid wages is construction, where projects all across the country have shut down. In Zhengzhou, in Henan province, construction worker, Shen, who was owed three months of wages camped out in a construction project’s showroom. “The police said they could arrest me for doing so,” he told the Financial Times. “I don’t mind spending a few days behind bars where I can get free food and shelter.” 

In Huidong county, Guangdong province, government authorities said workers could face criminal charges for even criticizing government officials or threatening self-harm while protesting. Five workers in Linvi county in eastern Shandong province were detained for reporting late wages to city and provincial government departments. “Filing complaints to the upper-level government agencies is absolutely unacceptable,” Linvi police said in a statement. “It will disrupt social order.” 

Another significant concern of workers is decent health care in both urban and rural areas. In the first six weeks after Beijing lifted its notorious COVID restrictions, there were 73,000 deaths from COVID in hospitals across the country, and that excludes those who died at home. “Some health experts expect that more than one million people will die from the disease in China this year,” reported Reuters Jan. 23. “As millions of migrant workers return home for the Lunar New Year celebration, health experts are particularly concerned about people living in China’s vast countryside where medical facilities are poor compared with those in the affluent coastal areas.” 

With its economy in turmoil, China’s gross domestic product expanded only 3% in 2022, missing the government’s 5.5% target, which would itself have been the lowest in decades. New construction projects in China have declined at an annual rate of over 40% every month since last April. China’s currency, the renminbi, fell to its lowest level since 2008 against the dollar last fall. 

For decades China has been a haven for investment and profits for bosses worldwide, as well as capitalists at home. Its economy is deeply intertwined with production, trade and consumption worldwide. This occurs amid an unfolding capitalist crisis, exacerbated by the fallout from Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions that engendered. 

The Chinese Communist Party serves as a dictatorial machine to defend and advance state capitalist interests against workers and farmers. Mass organizations and unions are tightly controlled as agents of the regime. But just like other workers worldwide, the working class in China has begun to resist.