Wal-Mart fired employee Wang Shishu (pictured here with a headband that reads: "The company (Wal-Mart) has a black heart.") in 2012 after he organized workers to ask for better wages. A Chinese court ruled in Wang's favor in November, but Wal-Mart has appealed the case. As the retailer expands in China, more employees are demanding better wages from the company. - 

In 1996, Wal-Mart opened its first store in China in the Southern city of Shenzhen. Wang Shishu was one of the company’s first employees – he was hired to operate a dishwasher at the store’s food court.

His friends were jealous. "Everyone wanted to work there. I only got the job because back then, nobody in China knew how to operate a dishwasher – but I did," says Wang, proudly. "I had already worked at Pizza Hut."

Wang made a dollar an hour – a high salary in China at the time. "I could support my two children and my wife and it covered our food and housing costs, too."

As China’s economy rapidly developed, so, too, did the cost of living in China. But wages for China’s Wal-mart employees lagged behind. China’s economy is now eleven times bigger than it was 18 years ago, when Wal-mart first arrived. In that same time, the starting salary for employees at Wal-Mart in China has only gone up by 73 cents an hour. There’s not much employees can do about it – the only workers' union allowed under Chinese law– The All China Federation of Trade Unions - typically acts on behalf of company management, rather than employees. "It’s simply a boss’s union," says Wang, "not a group that seeks justice for workers."

So in the summer of 2012, Wang collected dozens of workers’ signatures asking Wal-Mart for better wages. A week after presenting the petition to Wal-Mart and union officials, Wal-Mart fired him. Wang sued, and in November, a Chinese court ruled in Wang’s favor – ordering Wal-Mart to rehire him. But on the morning of his first day back at work, Wang's lawyer calls – Wal-Mart’s just appealed the case. "Now I'm going to have to wait for the appeal to go through," Wang grumbles. "They’re probably going to try and negotiate a cash settlement, but I just want my job back."

China’s always been crucial to Wal-Mart’s success – for decades, the country’s cheap exports and quick supply chain helped the company maintain its low prices. Today, Wal-Mart operates 390 stores in more than 150 cities throughout China.

It’s a good match for China’s shifting economy. The government wants to turn yesterday’s factory workers of the manufacturing sector into an army of restaurant, hotel, and retail employees for its new service sector.

But Shenzhen labor lawyer He Yuancheng says Wal-Mart needs to pay these workers a livable wage. "Only when all China’s workers have money to spend will they actually consume more," says He. "If companies like Wal-Mart don’t pay workers enough, China’s service sector won’t grow."

Mr. He has handled dozens of worker complaints against Wal-Mart. He says Wal-Mart has a cozy relationship with the Chinese government’s workers union. "It’s a win-win situation," says He. "The union gets tens of thousands of Wal-Mart workers to join it and Wal-Mart can brag about having so-called ‘unionized’ workers in China."

In response to a list of questions about how Wal-Mart treats its workers in China, Kevin Gardner, Wal-Mart’s Senior Director of International Corporate Affairs, wrote in an email that no one at the company was available for an interview on this topic.

Back in Shenzhen, another former Wal-Mart employee, Wang Yafang, says after eleven years at the company, she took leave to attend a workers’ rights march across the border in Hong Kong. She says after her manager saw her marching on the local television news, he fired her. China’s official union approved her termination. When she threatened a lawsuit, she says Wal-Mart officials scoffed at her chances. "They said they had hired the best lawyers in the country and that there was no chance I’d win," she remembers.

A year later, Wang won her lawsuit against Wal-Mart in a Chinese court. Wal-Mart appealed the ruling twice. It lost each time. In the end, the company was forced to pay Wang 18 months of lost salary. The victory gave Wang a boost of confidence to go after a bigger target. Now, she says she’s suing China’s government-backed union, too.


Follow Rob Schmitz at @rob_schmitz