| DENGFENG, China, April 8
DENGFENG, China, April 8 Huang Xingguo took a
job as a cashier at a new Walmart store in his hometown in
southern China for a steady paycheck and the prospect of upward
mobility after a string of sales jobs and a run as a day trader.
Five years later, he has landed on the frontlines of China's
labour rights movement, an unlikely leader of several dozen
workers seeking better severance pay after the store in the
Hunan province city of Changde announced last month it was
It's not the biggest labour dispute China has seen in a
recent surge of activism that has included factory strikes
involving thousands of workers, but experts say it's among the
In China, as in other countries, Wal-Mart Stores Inc
has figured prominently in the debate over worker rights. Unions
first opened at its stores in 2006 during a major government-led
drive to unionise private companies. The Chinese government used
Wal-Mart as a fillip for greater unionisation at foreign firms.
The Changde case would not just set a precedent for
Wal-Mart, but for other foreign companies seeking to restructure
their operations in response to a slowing Chinese economy.
Worker protests are common in China, but leaders like Huang
are not. Huang is chairman of the state-backed union at Walmart
store No. 2024, and was democratically elected to the post,
which makes him even rarer. Because Huang is a union branch
leader, the case is also a challenge to the world's largest and
China's only legal union, the 260 million-member All-China
Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).
Over the past several years, China's union has sat on the
sidelines as workers, emboldened by a demographic shift that has
led to a shrinking labor pool, have become more knowledgeable
about their rights and proactive in using both collective action
and the legal system to protect them. The ACFTU has typically
done little to protect the rights of labourers in disputes,
despite a mandate to do so, experts and workers say. Most union
branch bosses in China are hand-picked by management.
Labour rights lawyers, scholars and activists hope Huang's
example can push the ACFTU toward greater activism for workers.
Last week, about two dozen lawyers, scholars and labour
activists brought Huang and three of his colleagues to discuss
the case for two days at a hotel in Dengfeng, Henan province - a
location one of the organisers said was chosen because it is far
from the spotlight of Hunan.
"This case is significant because he (Huang) is an
inside-the-system, legal union chairman," said Wang Jiangsong, a
Beijing-based labour scholar who was at the meetings. "It's a
very valuable case."
GIVE THEM RESPECT
Short, with a buzz cut and a round face punctuated by a
goatee beard and rectangular glasses, Huang, 42, is unassuming
and says he was motivated to fight Wal-Mart because it was the
right thing to do.
After receiving a degree in Chinese from a university in
Hunan, Huang worked for a state-owned general merchandise
company for six years, advancing to middle management. He and
others were bought out in the late 1990s amid China's
state-owned enterprise restructuring campaign and he went into
pharmaceutical sales, bouncing between companies.
It was as a sales team leader that Huang says he learned the
secret to good worker-management relations. "In the process of
organizing these people I learned that only if you think about
them and think about their interests will the group have
cohesion," he told Reuters on the sidelines of the meeting in
In February 2009, Huang started work at the new Walmart
store in Changde. Beginning at the cash register, Huang moved up
and eventually became an administrative manager. By 2011, he had
joined the union committee as a vice chairman and was sent on a
training course on the union's role that was run by the
"This was the first time I really understood what the union
organisation was about," he said. "After that training I felt
that the union had a bigger mission and responsibilities."
In early 2013, he was unanimously elected chairman of the
store branch of the union.
But the Changde Walmart was flailing, according to Huang.
Sales went from weak to worse and foot traffic was thin, he
said, adding that the number of staff had more than halved to
under 150 by early this year.
Raymond Bracy, head of corporate affairs at Walmart China,
said the company schedules and manages labour at stores
worldwide to match store traffic. "Sometimes, these actions
allow us to keep the store open. In Changde, it was not enough
to keep the store open," he said.
In late February, Huang said Wal-Mart offered him a
promotion to a job in the Hunan capital of Changsha on condition
he would agree to help make an upcoming, but unspecified, "major
change" at the Changde store proceed smoothly, he said. He
feared the store might be slated to close.
If Huang was offered a promotion and a move to another
store, Bracy said, "he was no doubt viewed as a capable
associate who had the potential to contribute in another role".
On March 5, Wal-Mart announced the store would indeed close
two weeks later.
"I knew I needed to help the workers," Huang said. "I knew
that if I didn't, I would not be able to forgive myself."
He turned down the job in Changsha and started mobilising
the union. The workers were unhappy that there was no prior
consultation before the store closure was announced. They also
took issue with the level of compensation Wal-Mart was offering
those who decided to take a buy-out, arguing they were being
dismissed illegally and deserved more.
Undergirding their displeasure, Huang said, was the feeling
that Wal-Mart had not given workers their due respect. Ironic,
he noted, as one of Wal-Mart's self-proclaimed core values is
"respect for the individual".
Several rounds of consultation between the union and the
company have failed to end the disagreement. Workers temporarily
blocked Wal-Mart from clearing the store of goods, and asked the
government for backing. The union is considering taking the case
to formal arbitration.
"The reason Wal-Mart is holding on, even to the point where
their expenditures have surpassed what the workers in this case
are asking for, is because they do not want the way the Changde
Walmart situation is resolved to become a precedent," said a
scholar involved in the case who declined to be identified
because of her close ties to the ACFTU.
Wal-Mart said in October it planned to close 15-30 China
stores through 2016 while opening up to 110 and
creating nearly 19,000 jobs as part of efforts to revitalise its
business. It has around 400 stores in China. In the Changde
case, the company had "met obligations the law requires", paying
workers whose contracts expired based on the number of years of
service, Bracy said.
The AFL-CIO, the United States' biggest federation of
unions, said it "supports the demands of Chinese workers" in a
statement about the case on its website on March 28.
THE SAFE CHOICE
Over two days at the hotel in Henan, lawyers, scholars and
NGO experts debated the legal merits of the case and offered
advice for navigating what are essentially uncharted waters for
a local union branch.
China's unions are fundamentally weak, said the scholar with
ACFTU ties. Its mandate is to protect the interests of the
nation - or government - above those of the workers. "When
there's a conflict they have to protect the former," the scholar
said. "It's the safe choice."
In a country where the right to strike is not legally
protected, labor organizing is a risky business. The government
puts a premium on maintaining a stable, investment-friendly
A Shenzhen court on Friday convened a second hearing in the
case of Wu Guijun, a former furniture factory employee who took
part in a May 2013 protest over the plant management's refusal
to discuss compensation for workers affected by the factory's
impending closure and relocation.
Wu, who had been elected as a worker representative but had
nothing to do with the official union, was charged with
gathering a crowd to disrupt public order, and detained. The
case is being watched as a barometer for the government's waning
tolerance for strikes.
Friends have called Huang to warn him to back down for his
own sake. But union leaders from other Walmart stores in China
have also called to learn from the situation in Changde.
Huang is under no illusions.
"In terms of the protection of collective rights in this
case I'm not optimistic. Nor am I optimistic about the future
work prospects for those of us who are leading this effort to
protect our rights," he said.
"But we have no regrets. At least we can tell future
generations, our colleagues and our friends that we did
something in good conscience, and it took a lot of guts."
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Harney; Editing by Ian