China’s widening income inequality sparks further labour actions

The labour movement in China has appeared to go quiet after the crackdown on labour organizations, organizers, and leaders in Guangdong Province since December 2015. Yet, this silence does not signify a stop of labour struggle. It has just taken another form to meet the transformation of China's economy.

China's National Bureau of Statistics stated that China's Gini Index had hiked from 0.462 in 2015 to 0.465 in 2016. According to United Nations, a Gini Index higher than 0.4 is regarded as an indication of dangerous levels of income inequality. Peking University's research (2015) showed that the richest 1% of Chinese households owned one-third of the national wealth, while the poorest 25% held only 1% of the national wealth. Such an inequality is intensifying the class conflict in China.

At the eve of May Day, crane operators from 27 cities staged a strike to demand better labour conditions. Such a nationwide strike of a single industry has seldom seen in China and attracted the media attention in Hong Kong. At the same time, many van drivers (known as Lalamove) in China also went on strike in April and May, as enterprises reduced their pay scale. In recent years, it is common that workers from individual industries or enterprises organize nationwide strikes. In 2017 food delivery workers across the country protested; some months ago taxi drivers in various provinces went on strike; now the crane operators voice out for themselves, all indicate that workers are suffering from informalization and casualization of the labour market. It is noteworthy that all these workers appear to be “self-employed” with vaguely defined labour relations. They are the most vulnerable workers when facing subcontracting and false self-employment, and are usually not entitled to basic protection such as social security and work injury insurance.

Despite political crackdown, Chinese workers continue to organize themselves to fight for their rights. A widening disparity acts as a catalyst of social conflict and its impact is deepening. China has been pushing for economic transformation for some years, attempting to replace manufacturing jobs with service-industries. However, employers continues to adopt exploitative measures such as the introduction of labour informalization and casualization to further take advantage of workers. The grassroots workers realize the economic transformation has not improved their labour conditions, and the only way to defend themselves is to organize themselves.

It sounds rather similar to the situation in Hong Kong, namely workers did not benefit from the prosperity brought by economic transformation of the past two decade. Bar benders' strike (2007), dock workers' strike (2013) and Hoi Lai Estate cleaning workers' strike (2018) tell us about the exploitation workers face when their jobs are subcontracted and casualized. The strikes in both Hong Kong and China is a message to the authority: despite the sweeping political crackdown and capital hegemony, workers would stick together and fight for their rights. How to network, inspire and learn from each other, might be a lesson and even a new direction for workers in China and Hong Kong.