New foundations for struggle and solidarity: The culmination of development and privatization on a Guangzhou Island

Guangzhou Sanitation Strike

An in-depth look at a strike by sanitation workers in Guangzhou and the new terrain of class struggle developing in China.

For nearly a month, garbage piled up throughout the streets of Guangzhou’s edifice to higher education as China saw another cleaner strike. The disgruntled employees are the sanitation workers who keep the Guangzhou Higher Education Mega Center—a literal island housing ten universities and some 200,000 students—garbage-free and fit for study. This strike erupted over the sudden replacement of the sanitation contractor by which the cleaners were technically employed, putting in jeopardy the jobs workers had held for ten years and leaving them with a difficult choice between moving to far away work sites and losing the accumulated benefits of long-term service with their company. Workers chose to resist, and beginning on August 10th, staged a series of escalating actions that seem close to winning them acceptable conditions.

Events of the strike

As the first of the Mega Center’s students returned to school on August 21st, university sanitation workers took the opportunity to stage a one day warning strike and demonstration. At that time, they had already been involved in progressively escalating agitation. On the 22nd, after receiving no response, the workers presented the company with a demand letter, issuing a deadline of three days for the company to reply. On the 23rd, they elected representatives and patiently awaited the company’s response. When on the 25th the workers received no reply, the officially declared a strike beginning the next day. More students filtered back to school, and workers gathered daily on the lawns outside of the subdistrict office to wait for company representatives, local government and union officials to show up for negotiations.
The period from the 26th to the expiration of the workers’ contracts at the end of the month was one of anxious waiting, the company warning that workers would lose any hint of compensation as well as the chance for a future job in the area if they did not immediately return to work and sign on to the company’s plans. Workers refused to cave to the threats and remained on strike. It was only on September 2nd, the day after the workers’ contracts technically expired, that worker, government, and company representatives finally met for a first round of negotiations. 1

The negotiations took place in five rounds, and workers had to battle to win conditions that would give them some ground in the talks. The first several rounds of negotiations stalled over who would be allowed to appear at the bargaining table. Workers had originally elected eighteen representatives, but the company and the government demanded only five be allowed to sit at the bargaining table.2 Staff from the Panyu Workers’ Center, who had been giving the workers legal counsel, also sought a place at the table. It was only after several attempts to sit down for negotiations and workers refusing to negotiate until NGO staff were allowed to join them that the government finally conceded and allowed two Workers’ Center staff to join the negotiations. Worker representatives, however, were reduced to five.3 The company attended only the first round of negotiations, after which the Xiaoguwei subdistrict government negotiated on behalf of the employing party. The employing party initially offered length-of-service severance pay of 1000 yuan per year, which workers turned down. This was later raised to 2000, and then 2500. On September 9th, workers finally reached an agreement with the government conceding severance pay of 3000 yuan per year of service, an amount which included housing funds (住房公积金) that the company had never paid; in addition, they were promised make-up social security payments for non-local workers.4

While the workers’ agreement with their former employer has finally been settled, the dispute is not yet over. Tensions are still simmering over whether the new company will keep the promise it made in its contract bid to rehire all veteran workers. The company has already made an attempt to break its promise and split workers along the lines of local and non-local, rehiring all locals while instructing non-locals to await further notice; this, fortunately, met resistance from workers who refused to accept discrimination against their coworkers.5 On September 12th, after the company retracted its earlier instructions and promised all workers they would be rehired, workers returned to work. This brought the conflict to a lull, and workers returned to work. However, until contracts are signed with the new company, the conflict is not over. The company stated contracts would be signed on the 15th. Yet almost a month from the promised date, contracts have still not appeared.6 Organizers remain hopeful they will be signed in the next week. What moves the company may attempt are not yet clear; until contracts are signed, workers’ futures are not secure, and there may be a chance for retaliation against key organizers. For now, workers and their student supporters remain on guard.

The final results of this strike may not yet be clear, but its significance is already manifest. The strike itself is significant as a symptom of the increasing privatization of basic urban services, which has set off related incidents elsewhere, but as it has progressed, it has become even more significant as a precedent for solidarity between locals and migrants, women worker leadership, and student-worker collaboration.

Privatization of the city

The sanitation strike is one of a series that has plagued the Pearl River Delta in the past few years. The city of Guangzhou has seen several such strikes affecting almost every major city district (including Yuexiu, Tianhe, Liwan, Baiyun, and Panyu) since 2008. Nearby Foshan has also experienced similar sanitation worker unrest. The background to this unrest is the privatization of urban sanitation services, gradually implemented in Guangzhou beginning in 2001.7 The series of Yuexiu district sanitation worker strikes beginning in 2008 were triggered by this incident, the first being a protest against the recalibration of workers’ length-of-service as Yuexiu district turned management of its cleaning services over to private contractors.8 Sanitation worker protests, including the most recent in Yuexiu district, have also arisen over wages and work intensity. However, where the root of these problems lies is also clearly illustrated in the Mega Center case.

Up until the end of August, the sanitation workers of the Guangzhou Higher Education Mega Center worked for a company known as GrounDey Property Management (广电物业). While GrounDey is state-owned,9 its relationship to the city government is that of a contractor, competing on a market basis to underbid any other publically- or privately-owned contractors for the city’s sanitation work contracts. GrounDey, however, was not the workers’ original employer at the complex. When workers were first hired at the university complex site in 2004, they were hired directly under the city’s sanitation bureau (环卫处). But the next year, as part of the marketization of sanitation services, they were transferred to GrounDey, a state-owned enterprise, which acted as their employer for the next nine years. This summer, GrounDey lost its bid for the Mega Center contract to Sui Cheng Property and Resources Development Co., a privately owned developer, leaving workers with two unappealing options: to sign new contracts with GrounDey and be forced to move to far-flung locations, away from their families, or to sign with the new company, forfeiting their hard-earned seniority pay, benefits, and right to an unlimited term contract.10 While in reality the workers will continue to work for the same ultimate employer—the Xiaoguwei subdistrict government which governs the Mega Center—the government has distanced itself from direct responsibility for these workers by subcontracting the work. Thus, they make it possible to govern on a cost-cutting basis without being directly responsible for the impacts on workers this causes. The government cuts costs by awarding contracts to the lowest bidder; the contractors are then the ones responsible for maltreatment of workers, while local government and the yellow union intervene in disputes as mediating parties, even though government cost cutting is the ultimate source of the workers’ problems. Subcontracting has become a preferred strategy for the government to outsource the problems that come with the dirty work of cost cutting.

This dynamic became clearer when the original Xiaoguwei sanitation budget was uncovered during the struggle. The documents show that Xiaoguwei had originally budgeted for 426 sanitation workers, but the complex currently employs a mere 212 workers.11 From 2004 to 2010, nearly 100 million yuan budgeted for sanitation work is unaccounted for. Beyond mere corruption, this case is also symptomatic of the ties between cost cutting and privatization. Such practices are in fact typical of sanitation contractors, where employers will provide as little as half the number of workers specified in their contracts and instead ramp up work intensity, such that work can barely be finished in the allotted time. This is common enough that a term exists in the sanitation industry to describe the money thus made: “extension fees” (拉长费), defined as the money companies makes on any extra work workers do beyond their proper allotment.12 Since 2001, sanitation work in Guangzhou has been contracted out essentially on a lowest bidder basis, providing a simple process by which the government cuts its costs while private companies deal with the nitty gritty of constricting wages and firing workers in order to make the work fit within lower and lower budgets.

In the land of socialism with Chinese characteristics, the most basic of urban services are increasingly being turned over to the market. In an industry so fundamental to basic urban functioning, and also generally employing a much more stable workforce than manufacturing or other service industries, this is an important and strategic place for labor struggle to appear in a way that is visible and can create lasting changes in the way basic urban services are managed and funded. These industries, unlike manufacturing, cannot be moved inland and their workers will not be so easily dispersed and replaced.

Experiences of Eviction

In the face of this privatization, the workers of the Higher Education Mega Center have a uniquely strong basis for holding together and not being dispersed. Beyond the industry characteristic of having worked for a long time for the same employer, and being generally older with more demands for stable livelihoods, what is unique about this group of workers is that they are locals, and not only that but have been engaged in various rights defense struggles together for the past ten years. Most of the workforce has been here nearly the whole ten years since the Mega Center opened, giving them ample time to know each other; and a majority have known each other even longer, 90% of the workforce being locals of the island whose homes were taken in order to build the mega complex.

The island on which Guangzhou’s Higher Education Mega Center was built is known as Xiaoguwei, originally a rural area consisting of 13 villages. It was annexed by the city in 2003 in order to build a center for higher education to increase Guangzhou’s educational capital. The area is now administered by Xiaoguwei Subdistrict (街道) and belongs to the larger Panyu District. In order to build the massive university complex, land was forcibly taken from resistant villagers, the city deploying police and plenty of dogs to chase them out.13 Unlike local landholders in some more visible and central places of the Pearl River Delta, villagers on this isolated island were given meager compensation of 30,000 yuan per mu (approx. 1/6 of an acre) of land, plus a small amount for any built-up land taken from them.14 The compensation for agricultural and built-up land together was still far from enough to pay for new houses to replace villagers demolished homes. Many villagers were left temporarily living with friends or relatives. After this violent eviction, villagers fought to be able to stay and make a livelihood on the land of their ancestors. After dramatic actions including a trip to petition in Beijing, they won jobs as sanitation workers in the higher education complex.15 Even so, with their meager wages of 2000 yuan a month, ten years later many of these villagers-cum-workers are still struggling to pay for new homes.16

The sanitation workforce currently working on the island still predominantly consists of these locals. They share a common dialect of rurally inflected Cantonese and memories of the state violence inflicted against them ten years ago. Experiences of eviction have left them with a strong mistrust of the police and an instinct to stick together in resisting them. As they sat about chatting during the long dragging days of the strike, locals discussed heatedly and with bitterness their experiences of eviction ten years ago. One supporter recalls from her day with the strikers how locals surrounded herself, another student supporter, and a lawyer, defending them from the police with a conviction and confidence that comes only from experience. Caught by the police without their ID cards, the students had been asked to go with the police to the police station. Before they could agree, the local women intervened. “Don’t go!” demanded one. “Ten years ago we witnessed their methods of eviction with their dogs and their interrogation. It’s too dark. You can’t go. The Mega Center police station is no law-abiding place. It’s its own private island. Once you go in, you won’t be able to get out!” Another interjected: “You students have no idea. We’ve seen it. It’s too horrific. We’ll protect you. Don’t go!” The workers proceeded to form tight circles around the students and the lawyer, preventing the police from getting to them. While the police eventually got to the lawyer, not without a fight, the students remained safe. Upon discovering several undercover cops trailing students, workers even organized protection squads to escort students to and from the bathroom.17 This type of solidarity, shared with students and practiced between workers, is what made the workers strike so strong in the face of managements’ different tactics of repression.

Beyond their experiences of repression, the predominantly local workforce had another significance in this strike, determining a set of demands that went beyond the usual economic ones of higher wages and benefits. Instead, for these workers, this strike involved an element of respect—a demand for an acceptable life where they would have the right to stay close to their families and have predictable, long term work that they can plan other parts of their lives around. These workers were demanding the right to stay in the place they had worked for ten years, and where for most, their families lived and they had grown up. They demanded, in other words, a right to continue a life beyond work rather than just better their conditions at work. The demand, though seemingly merely defensive of existing conditions, is really maintenance of a condition hard-won from the very moment villagers were targeted for eviction. It is an ongoing struggle, and also the type of struggle for life beyond work so rarely seen in a social environment in China where workers have become accustomed to displacement and lives dragged around by the demands of money and work. Whereas the instability of the market that casually upsets the conditions of workers’ lives and renders them as volatile as a the capital flows they are bound to is something young migrant workers’ lives are already warped around, the sanitation workers at the Mega Center have the demands of people whose lives still have some grounding, whose lives have not already been shaped around deep geographic inequality and state restrictions on mobility. They demand stable lives that give them the time and ability to see their families and be beside them.

The Guangzhou Higher Education Mega Center case presents a unique intersection of peasant land struggles and labor struggles, where the agents are victims of local government policy both as former landholders (technically land use-right holders) and as lowly employees. Their case is unusual but illuminating in a number of ways. The first is that as landholders, the Xiaoguwei villagers existed in a strange pocket, an undeveloped island right next to one of South China’s largest and most prosperous cities. Whereas most locals and former villagers so close to Guangzhou—those incorporated earlier into the city—have benefitted from from the city’s rapid rise, which puts them in a class above most migrant workers in the city, the locals of Xiaoguwei, isolated on their island, were less fortunate. The sudden and massive scale of development of the island, along with the villagers’ isolation that made violent seizure of their land easier to carry out with less risk of undue attention, have left most of these locals no better off than migrant workers coming to the city. In contrast, in many slum-like “urban villages” in and around Guangzhou that are seized for development, the primary victims are migrants, who have already become the main inhabitants of all the less developed areas around the city, for locals long ago made enough money as landlords or by getting into business early to move to better areas. In cases like this, locals are often even in a position to negotiate a desirable price for their land. Despite being locals, however, the villagers of Xiaoguwei found themselves in a comparatively weak position, more akin to poor peasants from less wealthy regions of the country. This misfortune feeds into a second feature of locals of urban areas working in low-end services, a rarity most large Chinese cities. Finally, while many of China’s millions of migrant workers have experiences of abuse both as landowners and as employees, they experience the two events separated by long distances and as members of different communities. The Guangzhou workers, however, underwent both land grabs and exploitation as employees rooted in the same place and the same community, with deep social bonds still in tact. While rare today, this is a situation we may start to see more of as China’s interior develops and many workers move closer to home. Perhaps the struggle of the Mega Center’s cleaners is merely a prelude.

Locals and Migrants Together

Possibly due to Xiaoguwei’s unique circumstances, even though the local identity of many workers has clearly been a basis for solidarity, it has not led to exclusivity. In fact, the strike has demonstrated an impressive level of solidarity between local and migrant sanitation workers. While most of the sanitation workers are locals, the ten percent migrant workers who work alongside them have been particularly important and active members of the strike. According to one observer’s report, they were the ones who first urged the group to go on strike, and among the five representatives who ended up at the bargaining table, three were non-locals.18 Locals stood with them, extending the sphere of their already-strong community to include their non-local coworkers and refusing to allow their employer to split them.

This solidarity was made clear when early on in the strike, in addition to their demands for reassignment compensation, the sanitation workers specifically agitated for social security payments for migrant workers to be made up. Throughout their service, the company had paid social insurance for local workers, but migrants had been denied this basic and legally-mandated benefit. This was among the demands the workers eventually won. Workers further demonstrated unity during their contract offer with the new sanitation contractor, where local workers were offered immediate work on a 30 day “assessment period” while non-locals were instructed to wait.19 The workers resisted both points, aware that an “assessment period” without a proper contract would allow the company an opportunity to target key organizers, and also standing firmly with their non-local coworkers, refusing to be split. This level of solidarity has a lot to do with the workers’ long history together, something less often seen in the highly flexible manufacturing industry staffed by young and mobile workers. The workers long service side-by-side, along with the similarity of these particular locals’ experiences to that of their non-local co-workers experiences in less fortunate parts of the country, brought these two groups together in a rarely seen way.

Women Leading the Strike

Another distinguishing and important feature of this strike has been its strong female leadership. The Xiaoguwei sanitation workforce is 80% female. Jobs are segregated by gender, with males taking mainly the garbage truck driver positions. It is significant that in other strikes where many women have been involved, men have nevertheless been picked as representatives and chosen to take the lead, while at Xiaoguwei, women were both the most passionate strikers and constituted all 18 initially elected representatives. Only when women pointed out they should really have at least one male representative did workers go back and try to elect a few males. The men were initially resistant, many citing fears of affecting their families as reasons for not wanting to take on more visible roles in the strike. Only after more deliberation were two men elected, resulting in a final representative body of 16 women and two men.20

The reasons for the female leadership and male reticence in this strike are not clear, but the significance of such a phenomenon is. The heavier-than-normal female dominance in the workforce is of course part of the reason for women’s enthusiasm and energy in the strike, and the fact that representatives were chosen by work teams, most of which contained barely any men, can partially explain the choice of a female leadership, but it cannot explain that all the representatives chosen were female. Women took ownership of this strike, actively organizing, protecting each other, learning to defend themselves with the law and standing up to their employers. It has been uncommon for women workers to take so much initiative in a strike, and these women’s courageousness and energy is an example to others that in no way are women less capable of standing up for their rights or sitting at a negotiating table than men. While we cannot explain why these particular women were so determined and so ready to stand up, we can take them as an example to other women workers.

The Role of Students

Finally, the significance of the location of this struggle in the midst of a cluster of major university campuses cannot be ignored. A small group of students have been heavily involved in this strike, daily going down to the site of workers’ demonstrations, chatting and singing with workers, bringing food and water, monitoring and reporting on the struggle, and generally boosting morale with their support. These core supporters formed the Guangzhou Higher Education Mega Center Worker Rights Monitor Group to track the events of the strike and support the workers in the process. Several hundred more students have stood out to support the strike, both locally and at universities in other cities. After the news spread through student networks, an open letter in support of the workers was signed by more than a thousand hundred students.

While student activists are not a new phenomenon, it has been a long time since China has seen significant student involvement in a labor struggle. Student and worker relations in the Mao era took very different forms where neither labor struggles nor student activism took forms like they do once again today. And since Reform and Opening, labor struggles have rarely attracted even the attention of students, much less participation on this scale. While the number of students actively involved in this strike were a miniscule proportion of the 200,000 students who study on Xiaoguwei island, they are nevertheless a precedent. The important role students played monitoring and recording, relaying information, and putting their resources as students to work in support of workers is an experience of student-worker collaboration that can be drawn upon in future struggles. This is especially important as China continues to experience degree inflation, post-graduation prospects continue to decline (such that the average wage for new university graduates is now not much higher than that of a typical factory worker), and university graduates increasingly fall into a class not so far distinguished from workers.

The results of this strike look like they will merely be a defensive victory: compensation for dismissal from workers’ old company and the right to continue to work with the new company as required in the company’s sanitation work bid. But the precise gains garnered in this struggle are not as important as the experience of organizing and the new lines of collaboration drawn between locals and non-locals, between students and workers. This struggle has set precedents for new alliances that may change the conditions of work in a lasting way in this symbolically and practically significant center of education. A brief just-concluded strike by university cafeteria workers following in these sanitation workers’ footsteps, over a parallel situation of contractor switch-out, suggests the potentials.21 We will count on the solidarity and spirit of the strike to continue if anything is to happen as we wait still for contracts to be forthcoming.