Following China’s abrupt reversal of “zero COVID” restrictions, the vast national surveillance and analysis machine of viruses has plummeted, even as infections and deaths have risen.
Now the authorities are faced with another problem: angry pandemic control workers who request salaries and jobs.
In the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing, hundreds of workers embroiled in a wage dispute with a manufacturer of COVID test kits threw objects at riot police officers, who were holding up shields as they retreated.
Standing atop the warehouse, protesters kicked and knocked over boxes of rapid antigen tests, spilling thousands of tests.
In the eastern city of Hangzhou, witnesses said, several workers climbed onto the roof of a test kit factory and threatened to jump off to protest unpaid layoffs.
And at another test factory in the city, workers protested during the days due to a wage dispute.
This month’s unrest highlights a little-known aspect of the social and economic consequences of China’s 180-degree turn from “zero COVID” policy.
Mass testing has been the cornerstone of China’s strategy to isolate the virus before it can spread.
But COVID tests of any kind They are no longer in great demand.
Companies that have been making test kits and analyzing the results in a lab are seeing their revenues plummet, leading to layoffs and pay cuts for their workers.
One report suggested that mass testing in major cities accounted for about 1.3% of China’s economic output.
The consequence was a new source of agitation challenging the efforts of the ruling Communist Party to maintain stability amid high youth unemployment, a downturned economy, and a nationwide outbreak of COVID.
China said on Saturday that it had nearly registered 60,000 dead related to the coronavirus in the month following the lifting of “COVID zero”, even though experts said the true number of victims was probably much older.
The New York Times visited three COVID testing factories in Hangzhou, where workers and residents confirmed that union protests had taken place in recent days.
In one of the company’s factories Xinyue BiotechA fire truck, ambulance and police van were seen in the factory yard Wednesday responding to a worker who had climbed onto the fifth floor roof and threatened to jump in protest over unpaid wages.
The closed factory had been the scene of demonstrations for days, according to witnesses close to the factory.
The Times also looked into videos that have been circulating on social media of protests in Hangzhou and Chongqing, where workers clashed with police in large numbers.
Disputes in Chongqing and Hangzhou could portend further unrest in the future.
Many of China’s “great whites,” low-level public workers charged with enforcing COVID restrictions and named for their characteristic features, have been fired. white overalls for hazardous materials, shaking up an already volatile labor market.
Factories across China remain cash-strapped due to the general slowdown.
According to Li Qiang, founder and executive director of China Labor Watch, a New York-based Chinese labor rights organization, workers have virtually no no appeal to resolve your complaints.
“These protests have been very violent because the channels to defend workers’ rights are very limited, while trust in the government and laws is low,” Li said.
“Prove that if a company ignore workers’ rights, especially those of ttemporary workers more vulnerable, will suffer serious consequences.
In Chongqing on January 7, protesters protesting at a test kit factory chanted “give me my money back” as they faced lines of police.
It wasn’t immediately clear what sparked the dispute between the workers and the manufacturer of the test kits, Zybio.
Videos posted on social media preceding the protests alerted employment agencies in the area they exploded to job seekers inflation the amount of work the COVID test manufacturers were offering and how much they were paying.
The Times verified the location of Zybio’s protest videos by matching the buildings in the videos with online photos and satellite images of the industrial estate.
One of the videos showed protesters throwing plastic containers, stools and a traffic cone at police equipped with riot gear.
The company did not respond to requests for comment, and several protesters contacted by the Times declined to be interviewed.
In Hangzhou, protests erupted after workers at the plant were notified earlier this month Acon Biotech that they would be laid off for two weeks because the company’s revenues had declined since “zero COVID” measures were lifted.
An employee who attended the protests, who agreed to speak only if not quoted by name given the political sensitivity of the union unrest, said workers were enraged at the firing because it meant they wouldn’t be able to earn any money before the Lunar New Year, which starts this weekend.
At one point, distraught employees threatened to jump off the roof of a company building.
A week ago, workers received 3,000 yuan (about $445) each, and most of the workforce went on vacation.
Many Chinese test companies had been amassing fortunes during nearly three years of strict COVID containment measures.
But the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant made it virtually impossible to contain the virus, and China abandoned the strategy in early December.
Even without Omicron, China’s mass testing strategy was paying off economically unsustainable.
Many local governments – already under significant financial pressure from the slowdown and poor land sales for real estate development – were struggling to pay for the millions of free tests residents had to take virtually every day.
To fund testing and other pandemic controls, money was embezzled public projects in some provinces, while cities have cut bonuses for civil servants and imposed salary cuts on civil servants.
Several provinces and municipalities, including Guizhou in southwest China, began to do so test fee.
Lab testing companies, which had previously reaped huge profits, began reporting that governments were late on payments, leaving them exposed to bad debts.
Among them was Dian Diagnostics, a large company in Hangzhou, which reported in October that the amount of money it was owed had increased by nearly a 80% compared to the previous year.
Shenzhen Hezi Gene Tech, another fast-growing testing company, opened six new labs in China in October, closing half of them in recent weeks.
It was unclear whether the closures were due to debt or lack of business.
The company did not respond to a request for comment.
“The whole sector has been particularly affected by the removal of mandatory testing in the country. The demand has disappeared,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, who argued that “zero COVID” means it was dragged in part because it served so many business interests.
They’ve made a lot of money working for the government to implement ‘COVID zero,'” Huang said, referring to test labs and manufacturers.
How much the testing collapse and all the employment associated with COVID controls will affect China’s economy remains to be seen.
According to Taylor Loeb, economic analyst at consultancy Trivium China, removing “COVID zero” will remove constraints on economic activity, potentially spurring growth that would dwarf the loss of COVID-related business.
“Many of these jobs were never going to be stable long-term employment opportunities,” Loeb said.
For many migrant workers, times couldn’t be worse.
In the weeks leading up to the Lunar New Year, employees are often looking for bonuses and counting their savings so they can go home for the holidays, pay off debts, and give gifts to friends and family.
In Hangzhou, a tense confrontation between the police and hundreds of workers at an Alltest Biotech factory led to a push fight on January 9, a video shows.
Police took dozens of them, according to several witnesses testified in interviews.
Workers hired by a temporary agency on behalf of Alltest had complained that they were being paid less than regular workers, according to an employee interviewed at the factory gate, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the company process.
An employee who answered Alltest’s phone said operations had returned to normal, but declined to name or discuss the disturbances.
c.2023 The New York Times Society
Mark Jones is a world traveler and journalist for News Rebeat. With a curious mind and a love of adventure, Mark brings a unique perspective to the latest global events and provides in-depth and thought-provoking coverage of the world at large.