In January 2020, an unprecedented outbreak of novel coronavirus, later named COVID-19, took place in Hubei Province of China. Since the virus outbreak occurred during the Lunar New Year, the delay of work resumption cast uncertainties on the livelihoods of migrant workers who returned to their hometowns for holidays.
Could the government policies protect workers’ rights during this extraordinary time? Are workers aware of their rights entitled by law? Based on these questions, we conducted a series of interviews with frontline workers to find out the situations they are facing during the outbreak of COVID-19.
The research methods include mainly semi-structured telephone and online interviews. 41 workers were interviewed, tracked and followed up from the period of 2 February to 3 March 2020. 38 interviews were completed eventually. Most of the interviewees are currently working or have worked in Guangdong Province. The research purpose is to understand the whereabouts of workers, their lives, and the situations of work resumption of the companies they work for.
We designed two sets of interview questions to examine the situations of workers who have resumed work and those who have not resumed work. We hope to understand the factors restricting workers from returning to their factories to work, the arrangements by their employers on the delay of work resumption after holidays, and the effectiveness of government policies in protecting workers during this period of time. And, for workers who have resumed work, we hope to understand the quarantine arrangements before they get back to their workplace, the protective measures taken by the factories and sanitary condition in the shop floor, and the workload adjustment in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The situation of workers who have not resumed work
The reasons for workers not returning to their jobs
According to the 38 workers we interviewed, 20 of them (53%) were unable to go back to their jobs before the reporting date set by their companies because they were back in hometown for Lunar New Year. Among them, 18 (47%) were still stranded in their hometown on 3 March 2020, the end of the investigation period of this research. Most of them said they could not report to their jobs due to the lockdown policy taken by their villages as COVID-19 prevention measures.
Rights protection for workers who have not resumed work
According to the opinion of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, enterprises should take the initiative to negotiate with employees who fail to return to their jobs and set up work-from-home arrangement with them. Enterprises that do not have the conditions to support home-based work operations are allowed to arrange paid annual leave and other vacations for employees. In this research, we only came across with one worker who was assigned to work from home by his company. This arrangement is not applicable to most factory workers because of the nature of their jobs.
Regarding the arrangement of paid annual leave and other vacations, among the 20 workers who failed to return to their jobs on time, three of them said they were informed of their companies’ arrangements – one worker said his company would deduct annual leave for those who failed to return to the factory on time; the other two workers said their companies required employees to send leave application in advance, otherwise their absence would be seen as absenteeism.
However, for the other 17 workers, they all claimed their company management only sent them text message to require them returning to their jobs as soon as possible, with the date of work resumption provided. The management did not explain the consequences for those failing to return on time – whether they will face salary or leave deduction or not. The worst case among them was a worker who said that his factory unilaterally notified workers to report to the factory before 25 February. Those who failed to report to their jobs on time would be “at their own risk”. This ambiguous statement was more like a threat to workers, implying those who report late to their jobs could be dismissed.
The situation of workers who have resumed work
Quarantine measures for workers who have resumed work
We interviewed 15 workers who have resumed work. Some of them rushed back to their jobs after the Lunar New Year, and the others were security guards who stayed and worked during the Lunar New Year. Among them, nine workers came back from their hometowns, three of them were quarantined before they resumed work, and the remaining six workers were not quarantined. The three quarantined workers worked in Huizhou, and they were isolated for 14 days. Two of them stayed in their own rented house and the other one stayed in his dormitory. During quarantine, the workers could purchase food and other necessities with the assistance of the local residents’ committee. Moreover, the residents’ committee contacted workers via phone every day to track their health conditions and required them to conduct body temperature check. On the other hand, the worker who was quarantined in factory dormitory stated that his factory arranged meal delivery to him.
Distribution of protective equipment
15 interviewees claimed that surgical masks were provided by their employers and they were required to put on the masks during work, but the implementation of such measures is slightly different between companies. Most of the interviewees said they got one mask per day from their employers. However, an interviewee working as a security guard said he only received one surgical mask from his employer. For this security guard, the situation did not change until the end of the interview period. Upon the requirement of his company, he had to wear the same mask every day even ” if it has turned stinky.” Another worker claimed that no masks were distributed to him on his first two days of work resumption. He had to wear his own mask for work. The employer had not distributed masks until workers took the initiative to voice their concerns.
Based on the interviews, we understand that the interviewees had encountered many difficulties in purchasing surgical masks, regardless of whether they were staying at home or have returned to their jobs. 17 of the 38 interviewees told us that they had encountered difficulties in buying masks and could not provide enough masks for the whole family. Most of them said that they and their family had to limit the number of travels because they did not have enough masks. This showed that employer is an important channel of surgical mask supply to workers. If enterprises did not provide masks to workers, workers would be very likely exposed to health risks during work.
In terms of protective clothing and disinfecting supplies, two of the 15 workers who have resumed work were provided with protective clothing for work. Four people said that they were provided with disinfectant and hand sanitizer, and one worker said that he received a bar of soap. The other ten interviewees said that their employers did not provide them any disinfecting supplies.
Preventive measures against COVID-19 in factories
Among the 15 interviewees who had resumed work, 12 of them stated that there was a mandatory body temperature monitoring arrangement in their workplace. In addition, one interviewee said that his factory required all workers to perform a “health check-in” through mobile application to make health declaration on coughing, physical discomfort etc. Employees were required to do a daily health check-in, otherwise they could not report to work.
In terms of meal arrangements, four interviewees said that staggered meal times were introduced in their factories to limit the number of workers in the canteen. Workers said that their factory canteen had measures to prevent droplet transmission via saliva or mucus, such as requiring employees to sit and face the same direction and to keep at least one-meter distance with each other. One interviewee said that partitions made of paperboard were set up in his factory canteen, but the effectiveness of this measure is in doubt.
Other workers whose factories did not implement staggered meal times claimed that their employers had other meal arrangements. Six interviewees said that their factory canteen had been closed and employees had to buy takeaways outside of the factories and eat them in their workspace or dormitory rooms.
In terms of sterilization of workplace, seven interviewees said that their workplace are disinfected every day, and one person said his workplace is disinfected every two days. Door knobs and lifts were cleaned with disinfectants, and cleaners were seen to use disinfection powder to clean the floor.
Production arrangements and compensations to workers of enterprises which have resumed work
Some of the workers we contacted said that their factories had resumed production even though there were insufficient staff. Since production was halted earlier due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the original production targets had to be completed in a shorter period of time. Among the 15 workers who have resumed work, four people said that there was a shortage of manpower at the beginning of the work resumption and the workload was heavier than usual. Employees had to fill in multiple positions, and in some cases, even management staff had to participate in the production on the assembly line. Another worker even stated that since there were only about 10% of workers having returned to their jobs, the workload shared by each person was very heavy. The returned workers had to stay in the factory for a long time, even for eating and sleeping. Such arrangement remained in place until 1 March.
On the other hand, we also interviewed some workers who went to work as usual during the production halt. They were mainly security guards who were responsible for the security work of the community or buildings. They did not receive any compensation of alternative leave or double pay for their work during the production halt, which breached the Chinese Labour Law. According to the workers, the daily wage during the Lunar New Year holidays and the production halt was the same as normal work days. The only difference was that they were entitled to two extra leave days in February. According to the Law, security guards who work during these few days should be entitled to alternative leaves. They should get days off for every working day during the period, instead of only two extra leave days.
The right to know of workers stranded at home violated; negotiation between employers and workers not implemented
While the interviewed workers knew the date of work resumption set by their companies, most of them were not informed of the details of work resumption arrangements, especially the arrangements for those who failed to return to the factory by the reporting date. For employees stranded in their hometowns, their employers in general only urged them to return to the factories as soon as possible. Therefore, those who failed to report to their jobs on time were worried that they would be dismissed or their wages would be deducted. However, the employer has not yet given any definitive answers to the workers yet regarding these issues.
Before the official work resumption date, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security had issued guidelines that clearly required employers to negotiate with workers for work resumption arrangement and prohibited employers to unilaterally deduct paid annual leaves of employees. However, in this research, we did not observe any employer following the guidelines to take the initiative and negotiated with workers on the work resumption arrangements.
Infringements of employees’ rights were common
We found that Labour Law violations are still commonly found in factories or companies. The most prominent case was a security guard working as usual during the production halt, but he did not receive any arrangement of alternative leave or double pay as entitled by aw. This clearly violatesthe legal requirements of China.
In addition, at the initial stage of the work resumption, some companies had to meet their production targets in a shorter period of time despite the shortage of manpower. They arranged workers to work overtime in multiple positions. Some of them might have violated the Chinese Labour Law, especially the overtime hour restriction of no more than three hours per day and a maximum limit of 36 hours per month.
The use of Internet is popular among workers but their knowledge of labour policy is insufficient
The policy documents and recommendations issued by the State Council, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, and the Municipal Human Resources and Social Security Bureaus in different cities set out the responsibilities of enterprises during the outbreak of COVID-19 and the rights that workers are entitled to. Things included in the policy documents and recommendations are not only the arrangement of working hours and wages during the production halt, but also the guidelines on hygiene and COVID-19 prevention measures in factories, special arrangements of arbitration of labour dispute during the COVID-19 outbreak etc., which are very much related to the interests of workers. However, during the interviews, we found that most of the workers had never heard of these documents. And they knew little about these measures. 35 of the 38 interviewees said they were not aware of these policies, and the other three workers said they came across some of the measures on the Internet.
Many workers told us that mobile apps such as Alipay and WeChat were important sources for them to receive information about the COVID-19 outbreak. 20 of the 38 interviewed workers said that they knew about the epidemic information via mobile apps, TV broadcast and the Internet, such as the number of confirmed cases and the geographic distribution of them. Thus, the existing information dissemination channels were proven to be effective to a certain extent. However, workers were still unclear about the policies related to their rights, indicating that the government, labour unions, and employers have failed to promote labour policies and legal knowledge to workers, and they have not used effective channels to disseminate important information to workers.
Some thoughts and suggestions
Enterprises requiring employees to rush back to work in the cities during the COVID-19 outbreak is a fundamental factor that led to the infringements of workers’ rights. If the central government and the local governments levels were truly determined to ensure sufficient time for enterprises and employees to negotiate and cooperate, as they had stated in policy documents at the beginning of the outbreak, they should not have vigorously promoted work resumption at the end of the period of the production halt. They should also have solved the problems of road closure and transportation arrangement in advance.
As work and production have resumed since March have in Guangdong province, more and more workers have returned and reported to their jobs. Workers’ salary of February should be paid in March. Questions like how would wages be paid for periods of production halt and when workers could not report duty; how would leave pay and overtime wages be calculated, and whether these arrangements meet the legal and policy requirements should be worthy of follow-up.
In response to infringements of rights and interests of workers that have occurred, and to prevent the recurrence of such problems, governments at all levels in Guangdong Province should take up more responsibilities. The followings are our suggestions based on the results of this research:
- Workers who have been stranded in their hometowns should have their wages paid on time, and should not have their wage payment delayed until they returne to the report duty. At the same time, punishment or dismissal of employees stranded in their hometowns should be strictly prohibited.
- The Guangdong Provincial Human Resources and Social Security Department, labour supervision offices and official trade unions should pay regular visit to enterprises to inspect the implementation of preventive measures against COVID-19, including hygienic measures, information circulation, wage distribution and labour-management negotiation etc. They should also disseminate related report to the public in time. If any violations of government guidelines were found, the government should provide a practical and feasible improvement plan . Enterprises that fail to implement the improvement plan must be punished according to Law, including suspension of production.
- The aforementioned departments at provincial level and the trade unions should promote work resumption policies through TV broadcast and the Internet, and establish more consultation and complaint channels that fit workers’ usage behaviours, such as online platform to ensure workers fully understand these channels.
- Given the difficult business environment under the COVID-19 pandemic, government departments and trade unions in Guangdong province should ensure effective operation of the mechanism dealing with enterprise closures, including collection of information on business operation to identify vulnerable enterprises to prevent sudden layoffs. At the same time, officials should take the initiative and provide workers’ rights education to workers at workplaces during the pandemic. They should ensure that workers understand their rights when businesses are facing difficulties.
 〈关于做好新型冠状病毒感染肺炎疫情防控期间稳定劳动关系支持企业复工复产的意见〉（人社部发〔2020〕8号）“Opinions on Stabilising Labour Relations and Supporting Resumption of Business and Production During The Prevention And Control Of Pneumonia Epidemic Of New Coronavirus Infection” (MOHRSS 2020 No. 8)