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Chinese Teachers Protest Against Low Wages

  • Shannon Van Sant

Over the last few weeks thousands of teachers went on strike across northeastern China, protesting against low pay and forced contributions to their pension plans.

The strike ended last week. It was one of several that rapidly spread throughout towns and cities in recent weeks. Teachers say they were protesting low wages.

One teacher said she just wanted to raise her salary. She said she was not comparing her salary with others, but just wants the salary she deserves.

Teaching in China has long been a profession that garners relatively low pay. But the recent strikes in Heilongjiang Province were rooted in a government plan that requires teachers to contribute to their pension plans, something government workers had not been asked to do in the past.

For some teachers, who say they earned as little as $160 a month - $400 for those with much experience - it was too much. Their protests intensified and spread to half a dozen cities near Harbin, beginning in mid-November. Protesters marched on government buildings and classes in some places where suspended.

Zhang Li Fan, a Chinese expert and historian, said China's education system has long been too harsh on teachers and the strike is a result of built-up resentments.

Teachers’ strikes have also erupted in other parts of China this year. In October, teachers at a Guangdong Province junior high school also protested over low pay, and earlier, teachers at a high school in Hubei protested their status in the public employment system, which determines their pension plans.

Jeffrey Crothall, head of communications at China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong, said the strikes in the northeast are part of a larger trend.

“Teachers have been going on strike for a while now. But in the last couple of months we have definitely seen a spike in action amongst teachers. Across the whole country we have recorded at least 30 strikes in the last three months. And it’s mainly teachers who are working in less developed areas of China,” said Crothall.

While such worker strikes in the past would have received little attention, Crothall said the prevalence of social media has helped protests spread quickly from city to city.

“Because of the development and spread of social media, the use of these strikes is readily available to those who have a mobile phone. Teachers are fully aware that their colleagues in other parts of China are taking action, and it’s bringing positive results for them. Some teachers have gotten a pay raise, albeit a small one, out of this,” he said.

The teachers’ strikes ended, at least temporarily, last week, after the government said it was reviewing their demands.

As Crothall said, some protests have already been successful in forcing higher pay; in Heilongjiang’s Zhaodong City, authorities have increased teachers' monthly pay by an average of $135.

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