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March 2, 2024
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Angry workers clash with police in Chongqing after test-kit maker fires thousands

Angry workers at a now-defunct COVID-19 test kit factory in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing clashed with police over the weekend, upset about unpaid wages after the company announced mass layoffs.

Social media footage of the Saturday night protests showed people throwing traffic cones, boxes and stools at police with riot shields, while other clips uploaded to social media platforms like Douyin and Twitter showed a crowd of people shouting “Give us back our money!”

Workers smashed machinery and equipment in the factory and fought off fully equipped riot police with rocks and random debris, the videos showed.

Reuters reported on Sunday that it had verified some of the video clips as being filmed at a factory owned by test-kit makers Zybio in Chongqing.

Local sources told Radio Free Asia that the protest erupted after Zybio announced it was laying off thousands of temporary workers urgently recruited last year to cover huge demand for test kits under the zero-COVID policy that was abruptly abandoned following mass protests in November.

A local resident who gave only the surname He for fear of reprisals said riot police were dispatched to the factory in Chongqing’s Dadukou district.

A person familiar with the dispute who asked to remain anonymous said the workers were nearly all young people hired en masse by recruitment agencies to meet booming demand for test kits during the zero-COVID policy.

They said the central government still owes the company “a large payment.”

“They needed large numbers of people to produce the antigen reagent [for testing for COVID-19] back then, so they recruited a bunch of workers, made a lot of reagent, then were unable to sell it when restrictions were lifted,” the person said.

“A lot of people were kicking up a fuss, and the police went in, then some people started attacking the police,” the person said. “I don’t know if anyone was arrested … I can send you some videos.”

No year-end bonuses

A Chongqing resident surnamed Song said Zybio had recruited workers by promising a monthly salary of 6,000 yuan and a 3,000 bonus after three months’ service, and had been left high and dry by the lifting of zero-COVID mass testing requirements.

“So the factory announced it was firing all of the employees, including the newly recruited staff,” Song said. “This means they won’t get their year-end bonus, and Lunar New Year is coming up.”

“That’s why they rose up in protest — everything you see on the videos is true,” he said.

Social media accounts said the clashes continued until late on Saturday, leaving about 10 people injured, including factory managers and employees of recruitment agencies.

Workers also burned some of the unsold reagents, the unconfirmed reports said.

A Chongqing resident who gave only the surname Dong for fear of reprisals said he had seen some of the protests as he passed by the area on Saturday. 

“If [the company] signs a contract and then doesn’t honor it, then naturally there is going to be trouble,” Dong said. “They need to honor their contracts, not just lay people off with no warning. It’s hard enough for people in rural areas to get work, and a lot of people can’t find a way to earn money at all.”

A Zybio executive contacted by Radio Free Asia on Sunday declined to comment on the protest.

Ground to a halt

But a person who answered the phone in the company’s headquarters said business has ground to a halt.

“The company isn’t taking orders any more, and a lot of orders have been received but not fulfilled,” the employee said.

A Chongqing official who asked to remain anonymous said she hadn’t heard anything about the clash, and that the majority of local people have no idea the clash took place.

“We’re right next [to the factory] and are usually very well-informed about what’s going on, but I haven’t seen anything on any of the departmental groups about this, nor in any of the political and current affairs groups I follow,” the official said. “Maybe there’s been an information lockdown.”

She said this could be due to targeted information masking and blocking, enabling government censors to prevent sensitive information from being sent in real time.

The official, who has responsibility for economic matters, said the local economy is in the doldrums after three years of zero-COVID, and that local governments everywhere are out of cash.

It is likely that Zybio was unable to stay in production because the government had no money left to send it, she said.

A senior healthcare professional said similar situations have arisen across the country since restrictions ended in early December.

“All of these companies making [reagents] were doing so in direct and negotiated cooperation with the government,” she said. “For example, I know that the Nanjing government owes [test-kit maker] BGI a lot of money.”

According to a catalog released by the China Drug Administration, the bureau approved more than 30 companies to produce and sell reagents for COVID-19 testing.

Social media reports also mentioned similar wage disputes at test-makers Hangzhou Aike and Xinyue Biotech, amid a wider background of migrant workers demanding unpaid wages across the country, with civil servants and local government employees also going unpaid in many locations.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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