Until the end of 2019, not many people in the world had heard of the city of Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province, People’s Republic of China. Even less people knew that Wuhan had been the site of major historical events, like (possibly) the famous Red Cliff Battle that put an end to the Eastern Han dynasty, and the Wuchang garrison uprising of October 1911 that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty and led to the establishment of the Republic of China. From 2020 onward, however, Wuhan will be remembered worldwide as the epicenter of a global health crisis. Everyone will remember the pictures of an intubated Dr. Li Wenliang, dying at age 34 on the frontline against the new coronavirus after being silenced for relaying information about the disease. And since the People’s Republic of China seems (for the moment) to have contained the virus with far less casualties than many other developed countries, the world is looking at Wuhan either with anger (pointing at the “responsibilities” of “China” and “the Chinese” in the current crisis), or with some envy for the massive use of technologies that many governments would not be able or allowed to deploy to trace potentially infected people (such as the use of CCTV, phone tracking, data collection from telecom carriers, face recognition, drone surveillance, etc.). Despite such increased attention on the situation in the People’s Republic of China, not so much has been said about how the Chinese workers have been affected by an unprecedented crisis and by 76 days under lockdown.
From February to April 2020, the China Labor Bulletin–an NGO based in Hong Kong known for surveying and reporting workers movements in China–has published a series of articles and notes on the ways the covid-19 crisis and the measures implemented to contain it have impacted workers in the People’s Republic of China. A summary (“Coronavirus outbreak presents unprecedented challenges to China’s workers”) is available on the following webpage: https://clb.org.hk/content/coronavirus-outbreak-presents-unprecedented-challenges-china%E2%80%99s-workers
The findings of the China Labour Bulletin (CLB) are in many ways similar to what has been observed since then in countries hit hard by the virus. The reports underline how the health crisis as well as measures to contain it “have presented workers with unprecedented challenges in terms of returning to work, ensuring they will be adequately protected from infection once they do resume work, and safeguarding their rights to remuneration, social insurance and compensation if they are laid off.” If the challenges faced by workers worldwide are in many regards similar to those faced by Chinese workers (exposure to the virus, unemployment, excessive workloads, degraded work and living conditions, wage arears, gender and status inequalities, increased pressure and rates of depression), the outcomes of the covid-19 outbreak in terms of labor and working conditions differ from one situation to another and (will) highly depend on the contexts where they unfold.
Looking at the conditions of the workers operating “behind the scenes” of the center of the epidemic in Wuhan (like caterers and delivery drivers, construction workers, taxi drivers, sanitation and community workers), a first CLB article underlines the additional pressure put on the many workers whose activities remained essential during the crisis, although not working on the medical frontline, especially in Wuhan where “the bulk of resources go to frontline medical staff, leaving support staff largely unprotected.” Sanitation workers, in particular, have been submitted to “immeasurable” increase of their workload, with no other choice than to keep on working for many of them. The article published on Feb. 4th by the CLB mentions the case of 60-year-old Ms. Lian, paid 70 yuan per day (approx. €9/day), who “explained that she would be fined 150 yuan for each day’s absence,” and thereby exposed not only to loss of income, but to debt and possibly prosecution. Dire lack of masks and gloves in Wuhan have left many workers highly vulnerable to the infection. The shutdown of public transports (subway, bus services and ferries, from 23 January), for instance, has placed taxi drivers, ride app drivers and delivery workers at the center of the crisis mobility, often unprotected. Many sanitation workers have reported “walking for more than an hour to get to their cleaning station.”
In a second article published on Feb. 6th, the CLB reported on the “massive strain” that the ultra-high-speed hospitals construction projects have placed on construction workers, “both in terms of workload and health and safety.” On the first “campaign hospital” built at Huoshenshan, on the outskirts of Wuhan, work was organized in “two shifts, with construction workers [mostly rural migrants] doing 12-hour shifts every day.” Besides facing exhaustion and increased risks of accidents and infection, construction workers also face endemic wage arrears, which, according to CLB, “few government measures introduced have adequately addressed” despite the additional workload.
In a another article, the CLB explored the situation of workers “left in limbo, uncertain of whether or not they can return to work and the dangers they face if they do” after the State Council had reiterated (Feb. 18, 2020) the need to support enterprises by reducing their financial burden and enable the return of migrant workers from other provinces. The CLB noted that, despite the need to get the economy moving again, infection rates were still high in some areas, and there was “clearly a risk of another spike in infections if factory workers were not properly protected when production resumes.” However, “the vast majority of migrant workers live in private rented accommodation or factory dormitories where it is impossible for them to self-quarantine when they return. Low-paid workers cannot afford to check into a hotel for 14 days so some business owners have been forced to bear the cost themselves.” The CLB also underlines that many workers in the service industry [who do not get unemployment benefits] do not get paid if they do not work: “this has presented them with an impossible dilemma: return to work and risk infection or stay at home and rely on their meagre savings.” Finally, the article emphasizes the fact that putting local governments in charge of Covid-19 control measures has resulted in an heterogenous situation where “policies can change suddenly and without explanation, often leaving business owners and workers to bear the costs.”
“Despite their vital role in combating the covid-19 epidemic, women workers have often been overlooked by the Chinese authorities and official media,” writes the CLB in a note published on March 5th, 2020. In Hubei, for instance, 100,000 women have been working as frontline medical staff, in particular as nurses. Thousands of women have been infected by the new coronavirus, “initially because the hospital authorities failed to take adequate precautions and later due to overwork and exhaustion.” The CLB mentions the case of nurse Guo Qin, whose work consisted in taking blood and sputum samples: “On 12 January, she got a fever and was soon confirmed as infected. On that same day however, the authorities were still claiming that there were no infections among healthcare workers and no clear evidence of person-to-person infection.” Others were reported sleeping on the streets for days after being confirmed with covid-19, for they could not return to their hospital dormitory rooms and risk spreading the infection. On March 2, 2020, the China Central Television also reported increased rates of depression among women medical workers: “around 30 percent of the 1,596 nurses at Wuhan University’s Renmin Hospital were suffering from depression and anxiety.” However, only 4 out of the 13 “National Model Workers” celebrated late February by the Wuhan Federation of Trade Unions in the fight against covid-19 were women.
The China Labour Bulletin has also covered various issues related to working conditions during and after the period of confinement. As part of an ongoing investigation into the All-China Federation of Trade Union’s reform initiative, China Labour Bulletin conducted a series of interviews with trade union officials in six cities across China during February and March 2020. They wanted to gauge their response to the crisis and understand what steps they had taken to protect workers’ health, economic interests and legal rights. The English language article (“China’s trade unions caught in the headlights of the coronavirus crisis” published on April 1st, 2020) provides glimpses on safety issues, cases of infections, student interns forced to work at a factory during the Covid-19 outbreak, as well as cases of unequal subsidies for medical staff at Ankang Hospital (Shaanxi province).