Tue, Jul 19, 2016 - Page 11 News List

US and Chinese labor groups held talks before Wal-Mart China strikes

Reuters, CHICAGO

OUR Wal-Mart, the US worker group, has taken the unusual step of collaborating with a group of Chinese Wal-Mart workers trying to fight work schedule changes and low wages.

OUR Wal-Mart and the Wal-Mart Chinese Workers Association (WCWA) discussed strategy for recent strikes in China on a Skype call last month using a translator, both groups said.

“They asked for our support,” said Cantare Davunt, OUR Wal-Mart’s leader from Minnesota, who participated in the Skype call.

The US organization is keen to maintain the relationship with the WCWA and believes such partnerships can boost the clout of the retailer’s global workforce.

“We can use this to collectively press Wal-Mart on issues,” OUR Wal-Mart co-director Dan Schlademan said.

Wal-Mart declined to comment on the collaboration among worker groups in both countries, though the company did address the scheduling dispute in China.

OUR Wal-Mart — which last year split from the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) over strategic direction — says it has the support of more than 100,000 Wal-Mart workers.

The retailer employs 1.5 million workers in the US and 2.3 million worldwide.

The US and China groups are discussing joint strategies to address challenges that workers in both countries face, including work schedule changes, Schlademan said.

Such international collaborations are rare, especially in China, said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

“Large American unions have supported labor movements in a few parts of the world over the years, but not in China, so this is out of the ordinary,” he said.

Many US workers and union advocates have traditionally viewed workers in other nations as competition for jobs, labor experts said.

The only legal labor organization in China is the state-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which is widely considered an arm of the Chinese Communist Party. Most strikes, including those at Wal-Mart, have happened without the federation’s involvement.

Neither OUR Wal-Mart nor Chinese workers’ groups have much leverage to force changes at the behemoth retailer. The US group has no collective bargaining rights and it offers workers free, voluntary memberships.

OUR Wal-Mart cites a recent success in helping to push Wal-Mart last year to raise the minimum wage to US$10 an hour. However, that change came amid a nationwide push by some major cities, politicians and labor unions for broad minimum wage hikes.

There are hundreds of strikes around China every year. China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labor rights groups, tracked 6,901 strikes in China from January 2011 until now, 349 of which were at foreign-owned companies.

Such was the case when workers organized strikes this month at four stores in China’s Nanchang, Chengdu and Harbin, involving about up to 60 employees at each location, said Zhang Liya, a Wal-Mart employee from the southern city of Shenzhen who set up and manages the WCWA’s online chat groups.

The strikes came in response to Wal-Mart’s introduction of a new work hours scheduling system for Chinese employees that they WCWA worried would cut overtime payments for employees.

Under the new system, store managers are permitted to allocate workers any number of hours per day, as long as each worker’s total adds up to 174 hours per month. Workers scheduled for more than eight hours per day or 40 hours per week would not be paid overtime, at time-and-a-half rates, as long as they are given fewer hours in the rest of the month, according to OUR Wal-Mart.

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