by Xia Nü
At the close of 2017, the yearlong temporary agency workers’ protest for equal pay at FAW-VW’s Changchun plant seemed to have ended. On December 21, FAW-VW suddenly offered all the temporary agency workers five-year contracts, inserting the condition that workers had to confirm all remuneration issues during their employment period through the temporary agency had been cleared up.1 For those who have followed the issue since 2016 questions remain: Have all of the workers accepted the contract? Have they all given up the compensation claim? Has FAW-VW made other concessions this time? Are there any legal procedures pending? We need to look back at the protests and subsequent changes for answers.
There were around 3,500 temporary agency workers in FAW-VW’s Changchun plant when the protest began. Of them, 1,028 explicitly participated in the collective protest, meaning that they signed the letter of attorney to launch legal proceedings against the company. Some of them also took part in a demonstration outside the factory. More than 2,000 temporary agency workers did not join the protest but benefited from it. Various measures were taken against the workers’ protest action: workers’ posts on social media were blocked and management cooperated with the police to criminalise worker representatives. In addition to these actions to undermine the protest, FAW-VW launched two rounds of recruitment from its dispatch workforces. This marked a key shift in the struggle.
In April 2017, as a concession to the temporary agency workers’ protest, FAW-VW announced 2,400 new jobs. But, not all of the temporary agency workers accepted the offer at that time. Workers saw some problems with the offer. First, only 500 positions were to be located in Changchun, where the workers had lived and worked for over ten years. Other positions were to be located in different cities and the workers would not be able to apply to return to Changchun again in future. Second, if they accepted the position, the workers would have to give up the claim of compensation. And third, acceptance of the new contract came with additional conditions. There was an exam and selection process, which workers were worried might have been rigged. In addition, only those who had worked more than ten years were granted the chance to apply.
In a report from German media NDR, a VW spokesman revealed that in the first recruitment about 1,500 temporary agency workers took the contract.2 The report confirmed that only 500 positions were in Changchun. Workers had to accept being shifted to other places according to production and staffing needs. Some of the protesting workers also took the contract. Although not all the workers who signed the new contract gave up their demands for back-pay, they basically withdrew from the protest. Around 900 protesters stayed until a second round of recruitment happened.
The second recruitment round was a surprise attack for the protesting workers. FAW-VW suddenly put out an announcement on December 21, saying it would give all the (remaining) temporary agency workers regular contracts in Changchun, and that FAW-VW would not continue to contract workers through the temporary agency company in Changchun in the future. Workers who would not sign the new contracts would be sent back to the temporary agency. The workers were given one day to accept the new offer. Workers soon discovered the trap. In the contract offered by FAW-VW there was an item that read as follows: “The employee side confirms: all the remuneration, benefits and other issues have been cleared up and settled during the former employment as dispatch workforce.” At the same time, the temporary agency’s terminating contract included a similar item.
Unlike the first recruitment round, the workers faced very difficult situation this time. First, their lawsuit had been denied several times by the courts of Jilin Province, where FAW-VW and its related companies account for the dominant portion of the province’s GDP. The local court withheld all of the evidence that the workers had collected for their case. Second, the leader Fu Tianbo was in detention, the workers had split into two groups and since then had not be able to organise themselves very well. Third, their contracts with FAW-VW and with the temporary agency were due to end at the end of December 2017. (Although most of them had worked, via the temporary agency, for FAW-VW for more than ten years, their contracts were still only for periods of two years). In this situation, all but five temporary agency workers signed the contract. Those who did not sign the contract included worker representatives Fu Tianbo and Ai Zhenyu. At that time, Fu Tianbo was still in prison awaiting trial.3 Ai Zhenyu and three other workers refused to sign the contract because it would deny the existence of the illegal use of the temporary agency workforce and the unsettled dispute. They argued that the contract itself was illegal and capitalized on workers’ difficult situation. On December 25, FAW-VW claimed that they had sent the workers who had refused to sign the contract back to the temporary agency. The temporary agency then announced that the five workers’ contracts would not be renewed. The workers’ representative Ai Zhenyu posted on his Weibo account saying that they will continue their protest till the end.
Beyond getting contracts at FAW-VW, the workers have not achieved their demands. At the beginning of the dispute, they demanded open-ended work contracts, with seniority considered from their commencement as temporary agency workers, and with compensation for the unequal pay for equal work since 2008. FAW-VW has noted that seniority will be accounted for only from the beginning of the new contracts. The company has tried to convince people, especially the workers, that giving temporary agency workers contracts was not in response to workers’ protest but rather the result of the company’s development plan. Indeed, VW and its partners in China, like FAW, have been expanding the payroll for years alongside the construction of new manufacturing facilities across China. Rapidly boosting production capacity requires numerous workers, especially skilled and well-trained ones like this group of temporary agency workers who already had ten years of experience working at the company.
After dismissing the five temporary agency workers at the end of 2017, FAW-VW ceased to use workers contracted through temporary agencies in its manufacturing plants in Changchun. There are still large group of employees contracted through temporary agencies who work in the offices there. Some of these office workers felt offended that the company only gave contracts to the manufacturing workers. Also, there are more outsourced workers in FAW-VW’s factories than temporary agency workers.4 Some workers reported that 200 outsourced workers at FAW-VW have started their own protest, and that struggle is still going on.
As the New Year arrived, the five dismissed dispatch workers were to leave the production line where they had worked for over 10 years. “I and other workers who did not sign the contract will never give up protesting. And the workers who have been compelled to sign the contract also do not give up the protest”, wrote the worker representative Ai Zhenyu on social media.
1 The information in this article is all from temporary agency workers of FAW-VW.
3 In mid-January 2018, Fu Tianbo is still in prison.
4 Outsourced workers work inside the company’s factory (e.g., FAW-VW’s) but are employed by other, outsourced companies.