After being taken by surprise that the store was closing in less than a month, workers at Tesco’s Taizhou branch go on strike, take over the supermarket, and barricade the entrance.
The Tesco Hypermarket looked indomitable as it rose palace-like across from People’s Park in Taizhou, in China’s Jiangsu province. It definitely did not look like a place that was about to go out of business. In fact, as I walked into the store on August 4, 2012, everything was business as usual, but by the time I walked out the place had been turned upside down.
“You can’t do business sitting on your arse,” was a favorite expression of the founder of the 90+ year old British supermarket chain. Perhaps taking this lesson into account, the Tesco corporation took China like a hurricane in 2004, opening around 125 stores in the following eight years. But as of 2012 it has been rumored that they have yet to break even on their China investments, and have started closing stores.
All of this was a mystery to me as I was looking at a display of electric fans in the Taizhou Tesco. I saw a huddle of three workers nearby who were talking rapidly among themselves. I called out and asked one of them to assist me. Instead, they ignored me.
“Could you come here and help me?” I asked a second time.
“No,” one of them spoke up boldly before bursting out in a string of giggles and running away with her group of cackling coworkers on her heals.
What the . . . ???
Usually, workers in Chinese department stores are always at the ready to help some poor sap buy an appliance, but not today — something strange was going on. When I was finished shopping I went up to the cash registers to pay. There was over 20 check out lines but only one was open, and a long line was quickly forming at it. I felt myself growing annoyed as I fought for a place in this solitary queue, elbowing off some guy who tried to get in front of me to my right, and my wife had to bump a woman with our cart to inhibit her from budging in front of us to our left. None of this was completely out of the ordinary in China.
Then proverbial hell broke loose.
Customers from all over the store suddenly rushed to get in our line, and a mob consisting of dozens of workers in their trademark red Tesco uniforms appeared from out of nowhere. Everybody seemed to either be yelling, cackling with laughter, or chattering with those around them. I could not tell of the mob of workers were irate or if they were getting ready to celebrate something. Many of the workers were yelling at the lone working cashier as she rung up the people in front of me. She was yelling back at her co-workers. Though they were speaking Taizhou dialect I was able to make out that the workers were telling the cashier to stop working and join them.
“I think they’re going on strike,” I said to my wife, but what was actually happening remained very unclear. All I could tell was that all the workers in the store had stopped working.
My wife and I pressed up to the cash register and loaded our merchandise on the conveyor belt. The cashier yelled something that I could not understand at the rest of the customers in the line behind us. A woman then tried to force her merchandise on the conveyor belt with ours. My wife reached for the plastic separator and quickly divided our orders. A couple of other Tesco employees jumped to the cahier’s aid and removed the woman’s stuff from the conveyor belt and, after stuffing it in her arms, guided her out of line. It became clear to the rest of the customers that they would not be permitted to purchased items from Tesco on this day. Many gave up and stepped out of line, but most stood milling about, eager to see what was going to happen next.
As it turned out, I would be the last customer that these Tesco employees would service. After handing over my receipt the cashier exited her booth and the workers officially walked off the job.
A crowd of approximately 100 workers milled about the front area of the store. Some made camp around the cash registers, while others barricaded the store’s entrance with a row of packed together shopping carts and stood guard behind the barricade just in case any potential customer dared to break through. I watched as they turned away anybody who tried to enter, the workers had taken control of the store.
I stood in the fray, talking with people, trying to get a better idea of what was going on. An older lady who had on a meat department uniform walked up to me and asked where I was from. She was smiling and seemed full of giddy excited. I answered her and then asked if she and the workers were on strike.
“Correct,” she said, and then added,”it is sort of a strike.”
I then asked her why she and the other workers stopped working, and she told me the entire story. My stunted Mandarin vocabulary had enough in it to ask about the parameters of the strike, but understanding the complete response was another matter. It became clear that if I was to find out what was going on that I would need to locate an English speaker.
This was not difficult. After chatting away a few lines of Mandarin with a small group of 20-something ex-workers, I threw in an English language question to see if anyone understood. A smiling, bright eyed girl named Sun replied in my mother tongue.
“Why have the workers stopped working?” I asked.
“They are not happy about the news,” Sun replied.
“Everybody is going to be fired.”
“Everybody?” I replied questioning.
“Yes, we are all going to lose our jobs at the end of this month.”
I connected the dots: “Is the store going to close?”
“Yes,” Sun replied, “it is going to close this month.”
“When did you hear this news?”
“Right now!” she exclaimed. “We just found out maybe one hour ago.”
“So you didn’t know before right now that you are all going to lose your jobs?”
“No, we don’t know anything,” she spoke in exasperation. “They only tell us one hour ago.”
I don’t claim that I know much about labor force etiquette, but giving over 100 workers less than a month’s notice of a complete layoff seemed a little weak on Tesco’s part.
“So why have you stopped working?” I asked, wondering why the workers chose to walk-out rather than continue working until the end of the month.
“We don’t want to work here anymore,” Sun replied sternly.
Rather than sticking it out through their last month of employment, with the news that Tesco would be liquidating their Taizhou branch the workers decided to fight back. This has been done before in China. Last November, the Jinhua branch of Tesco pulled the same move: they took their workforce by surprise and told them that they would be closing up shop by the end of the year. The workers then took over the store, barricaded the entrance, and refused to allow any shoppers to access the “going out of business sale” that was going on within. The action caused an international media whirlwind, and the upper management of Chinese Tesco probably groaned as they received notification that their Taizhou employees had taken the same route.
“Are the workers going to be given any extra money because the store is closing?” I asked, trying to ask in simple English if any type of severance compensation was going to be paid.
She didn’t really understand what I was asking.
“Are the workers going to be given a bonus?” I then asked, knowing that the Chinese workforce revolves around bonus payments.
She got it: “Yes, if you work here for one year you get one month of extra pay,” Sun began, “if you work here for two year you get two months pay.”
This is the legal minimum standard for severance pay in China. For each year an employee worked at a company that goes under they are entitled to one month’s salary as compensation. But it’s not my impression that this severance pay was enough to ease the now unemployed worker’s concerns.
A couple of Tesco managers were milling about the crowd with very worried looking expressions on their faces. They had lost control of the store and they knew it. They rolled with the punches, and just tried to make sure that the takeover did not get out of control. From time to time the managers tried to exert the authority they previously held not an hour before, but it was too late: the workers had rebelled in a single mass, and there was nothing these men could do but stand around impotently. But they had backup: security guards in black shirts with “Loss prevention and security” embroidered across their breast monitored the crowd of workers. But these security personnel did not seem overtly intimidating, and they just sort of hung out and watched as the workers did their thing — making sure nobody damaged or stole Tesco property.
I then noticed that a cash register had re-opened and the remaining customers in the store were being checked out. But the guy running it was not a standard red-shirted cashier, but a manager decked out in a nice button up shirt and black slacks.
“He is the customer service manager,” Sun told me with a giggle. Watching their high and mighty manager shrunken down to the level of a cashier probably felt like poetic justice. “He is the only one working!” she exclaimed.
But before long Sun’s manager took her away from me for a private chat. When he left I walked back up to her. I knew what he said.
“Did he tell you to stop talking to me?” I asked with a laugh.
“Yes,” she said smiling, “he told me not to tell you anything about this.”
We laughed, as we both knew it was too late. It was too late both for me not being told about the strike and for manager to wield any authority over his employees. Sun continued talking to me, the overthrow of the store was complete.
But there was no chanting, no parading, no slogan shouting, no apparent organization among the mob of 100 or so workers who were now in control of the Tesco hypermarket. In fact, there was only a slight feeling of anger among the mob, and the atmosphere seemed oddly festive. I was slightly taken aback: from looking at how these workers were acting it was hard to tell that they had all just been fired. Along with those who were raging with complaints over the situation, many of the workers were laughing, giggling, and taking photos and videos of themselves in the midst of insubordination. It was as if they’d gone on holiday far away from their usual rule abiding, authority obeying selves, and, from what I could tell, they seemed to momentarily relish this new feeling — it was the only thing they had left at Tesco.
These workers seemed to be in a state of suspended animation, so caught up in the shock of unexpectedly losing their jobs mixed with the excitement of usurping the company hierarchy and taking over the store that the reality of what had actually just transpired did not really seem to be sinking in yet. All service employees perhaps daydream about rising up in a single mass and telling their bosses to stuff it. I watched as these Tesco employees did just that: they stepped out of the “place” their society and company had cut out for them, walked off the job, and took over the store — but tomorrow they will just be unemployed.
“What are all the workers going to do now?” I asked Sun.
“We don’t know,” she responded with finality.