April 2022 labour news roundup: truck drivers trapped by pandemic prevention

In this edition: Shanghai under the Omicron wave; internet companies lay off workers; how companies are dodging labour laws; unpaid wages for China’s football teams

In this edition: Shanghai under the Omicron wave means medical staff are overworked, and roadblocks leave truck drivers and delivery drivers responsible for supply chains without a place to stay; internet companies continue to lay off workers; companies dodge labour laws by outsourcing and crowdsourcing jobs; real estate issues are cause of unpaid wages for China’s football teams

The March 2022 roundup is available here

Workers under Omicron lockdowns in Shanghai

The Omicron variant of Covid-19 has continued to spread in Shanghai since the first locally transmitted case was announced on 1 March. By early April, the number of positive cases exceeded 10,000. By the month’s end, Shanghai’s case numbers were increasing by more than 1,000 each day, making it the worst outbreak since that in Wuhan in early 2020. The lack of labour protections for workers has become increasingly prominent. Not only medical staff, but also workers in many other industries, have worked overtime and bear the burden of making the lockdown happen. 

Doctors and nurses who administer tests have worked for ten hours a day without breaks. A doctor from a hospital in Pudong told Initium that he tested more than 1,000 people a day. “You can’t eat, you can’t go to the toilet, and you earn 200 yuan per day.” Pandemic-fighting efforts have been ongoing for two years, and best practices are known; but nurses in Putuo district have not had protective clothing and have been eating and living together in a small space. As of 9 April, 7 staff tested positive. 

Migrant workers are just trying to survive. More than 20 construction workers trapped in the living area of Pujian Group had no water, electricity or bedding for a week. They relied on water from fire hydrants to make instant noodles before being sent basic supplies. Shanghai Donghai Nursing Hospital recruited workers from outside the city, but hid the fact that patients had tested positive. A labour contractor charged these workers 1,000 to 3,000 yuan for an introduction. In addition, cleaning staff were assigned nursing work, and cross-infections occurred. The hospital threatened workers by saying that it would not pay their wages if they did not continue working. 

In March, CLB reported on delivery workers in Shenzhen who were left homeless by pandemic prevention measures. The same situation has occurred in Shanghai. To ensure supplies, delivery workers for fresh food platforms worked on overdrive through the month. Employees of food delivery company Hema slept in stairwells, which led to cross-infection, according to a Weibo post that censors have already deleted. Delivery workers slept on the roadside, under bridges, and inside ATM booths. Delivery companies Meituan and Ele.me only provide their dedicated drivers with accommodation, ignoring the needs of their crowdsourced drivers. Most food delivery rest stations provided by the government are full. CLB has written about Shanghai’s frontline workers here

Grassroots workers such as residential committee staff, social workers, grid workers, and pandemic volunteers are also facing huge workloads. The account of Qingpu district attorney assistant Zhu Letian is illustrative. Zhu was part of a team making calls to confirm positive cases and the itineraries of their close contacts. He and his colleagues made calls from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. the next day. He slept on the table and woke up at 5:00 a.m to make calls until 8:30 a.m. Workers could not take showers or go home for more than 20 days. They could not attend to  their parents or children, and they had only a few hours’ sleep a day. 

Truck drivers trapped by lockdown

The country’s 20 million truck drivers are facing serious difficulties, with lockdowns trapping them on the road, unable to find food and accommodation. Traffic jams, closure of residential communities and a drop in factory orders means their income has dipped. China News Weekly reported that drivers are worried about the impact of pandemic policies. On 18 April, vice premier Liu He proposed mutual recognition of nucleic acid test results within 48 hours to cut down on logistics issues and safeguard supply chains. 

Hua Shang Daily reported a freight company may have defrauded drivers. Shaanxi Anchi Tianxia Freight promised drivers high salaries. When drivers applied for jobs, they were told they needed their own trucks to become partners in the company. The company said it would supply goods and routes. One driver described how he took out a loan to buy a truck and paid a service fee of 15,000 yuan. However, the company did not provide a steady supply of goods and routes. Its promise that drivers could make 10,000 to 20,000 yuan per month was empty, and so drivers were losing money. Drivers wanted to break their contracts, but the company only refunded part of the service fee and refused to help the drivers return the trucks. 

Internet companies continue layoffs

An anonymous source said that Bilibili intended to lay off staff. Bilibili’s manager said that profits had increased and they were planning to recruit more staff, but esports and gaming departments are in fact laying off staff. Xiaohongshu reported layoffs, with different sources putting the number at 10 or 20 percent. Meituan has pulled out of Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia and Xinjiang due to high operational costs and layoffs are expected. Almost all 300 people in Baidu’s gaming department were laid off, and 10 to 15 percent of the AI department was laid off. 

Several internet companies have been inspected for forcing staff to work overtime. The Beijing Human Resources and Social Security Bureau issued “Notice on safeguarding work hours, rest and vacation rights,” and Shandong, Anhui, Henan, Guangxi, Qinghai, Hunan, Hubei and Jiangxi carried out inspections from March to May. 

Companies dodge paying for social security and work-related injuries

Companies increasingly use their own or other third-party online platforms to “crowdsource” jobs to individual workers, and they settle these workers’ pay in the form of service fees, a survey conducted by Shanghai Observer found. This way, the companies  have fewer people on payroll and do not pay for the additional workers’ social security. By settling salaries through other platforms, companies are also able to deduct VAT. This practice is most common for delivery workers, food delivery drivers, cleaners, security guards, front desk and customer service workers. 

Companies have no legal obligation to compensate these workers if they are injured in the line of work. Even if work-related injuries are determined, companies like these have chosen to dissolve themselves due to short registration periods and low registered capital. 

Football teams find wages go unpaid 

Southern Weekend reported that ten out of 18 teams in the Chinese Super League are owed wages, and some have also seen social security go unpaid. The faltering real estate market has had a knock on effect on investor numbers for these teams. The Chinese Football Association said that it will give teams more time to raise funds, and they can still qualify after they propose solutions to wage issues. Players owed wages for a while might not receive payouts. Nobody picks up when calling the arbitration committee under the Chinese Football Association. Sometimes, players have different employment relationships within the team, and the court steps in to determine whether or not they are considered employees. These confusing relationships affect players’ chances of obtaining their rightful wages.