Earlier this year, the COVID-19 outbreak brought my life as a traveling civil law attorney to a screeching halt. But unlike many, just because I couldn’t leave my Beijing home didn’t mean I was out of work. Prospective clients often reached out to me on microblogging platform Weibo, and as the economic ramifications of the now-pandemic rippled outward, messages from employers and workers continued to pour in from across China. Their stories are a window into some of the ways the past few months have turned people’s lives upside down.
Wang is the owner of a noodle restaurant I’ve visited in the central city of Wuhan, itself the center of the epidemic in China. One of his restaurant’s specialties is “hot and dry noodles,” a regional delicacy I’m particularly fond of.
In his message, sent in late February when the city was still in lockdown, he anxiously confided in me that he hadn’t sold a single meal in the last two months, even as he’d remained on the hook for rent and employees’ salaries. Although he was just managing to stay afloat, he worried his business would sink if the outbreak lasted any longer. He had asked his landlord for a rent exemption, only to be refused.
“Legally speaking, do I have the right to apply to my landlord to reduce or delay my rent?” Wang asked me.
The truth is, China’s legal community hasn’t arrived at a consensus regarding rent exemptions during a public health crisis. Most legal experts argue that it could constitute an instance of force majeure, justifying a tenant’s termination of their rental agreement. But the rules are one thing, the actual ramifications of such a decision another. If a business owner cancels a lease without a fallback plan for where to move next, they could face disaster.
After laying out his options, I encouraged Wang to try talking to his landlord again. If Wang terminated his lease, his landlord would be hurt, too. “Since the worst possible outcome for both of you would be to end the lease, perhaps it would in the landlord’s interest to come to a compromise.”
Wang said he’d try to talk it over again and hasn’t contacted me since.
One of the only things more common than lease disputes during the outbreak were labor disputes. Labor dispute consultations usually peak around the Lunar New Year holiday, when many workers — especially migrants — finally collect their wages for the past year. At a time when everything felt different, this was one constant. In many cases, local governments extended the Lunar New Year holidays but left bosses and their workers to figure out the details: What did the extensions mean, legally? And did employers need to continue paying wages during this period?
A retail worker sent me an inquiry. Like most people in his industry, his salary consists of a base amount and a commission. Lunar New Year was peak sales season: In previous years, his income from commissions was double the usual amount. That wasn’t happening this year, and his boss had also suspended his base salary, leaving him with no income whatsoever. This eventually led him to consider taking legal action.
I could sense he was conflicted. Suing his boss would almost certainly get him fired, but he’d only ever worked in retail and wasn’t hopeful about finding a new position.
As a lawyer, I could tell him how to go about suing his boss. But I couldn’t fix his underlying problem. I listed a number of legal provisions that would support his claim and reminded him of the things he needed to pay attention to throughout the proceedings. As to whether to file the claim or not — that was up to him.
While some were anxious to return to work, others complained companies were reopening too soon. Zhang is a programmer for a software outsourcing company. After the prevention measures were relaxed in his area, his company chose to partially resume work in the office. (Other internet companies have indefinitely extended the option to work from home.) Zhang felt he’d gotten the short end of the stick: He was among the first of the employees at his job required to return to the office, but he was afraid of being infected. He asked me if there was a legal mechanism for resisting the order.
I could sympathize with his plight. After Beijing lifted its lockdown, I went back to my usual pattern of traveling frequently for work. I worried about my risk of infection, too, but neither of us had much choice. Legally, as long as they have the government’s approval, firms can resume operations, and employees who refuse to comply are liable to face disciplinary action or even dismissal.
For many workers, the outbreak has shed an unflattering light on the fragility of employer-employee relations. Struggling businesses have turned to creative, but not particularly worker-friendly solutions such as “employee sharing” to stay afloat, and the national government has revised its unemployment forecasts upward, signalling that millions may be out of work for the foreseeable future.
Even in difficult times, however, some employers are doing their best to keep staff on the payroll.
Li is a former classmate of mine who runs an auto garage that was forced to close amid the pandemic. Fortunately, Li owned the building, so he didn’t have to worry about rent. His only concern was paying his apprentices’ wages.
Li told me he’d considered laying them off to cut costs, but he just didn’t have the heart. He’d also started off as a garage apprentice, living off meager wages in exchange for the chance to learn the trade. He hoped that, once the pandemic came to an end, they would remember his help and repay him by working hard.
Virtually all requests for advice I received during this crisis stemmed from a failure to perform established legal agreements, whether leases or employment contracts. That is, until I received a very peculiar message on Weibo one day: “What legal matters should I pay attention to when opening a business?”
I double-checked to make sure this wasn’t an old message from before, asking if she was serious. Who’d want to start a business now?
The woman told me she wanted to open a flower shop. For some time, she had been selling flowers online as a side hustle and had come to realize she loved it more than her full-time job.
I scrolled through her Weibo, and sure enough it was filled with photos of flowers. Clearly, this was someone who was passionate about floristry.
She told me she had been planning to open a shop for a long time and had set aside a decent sum of money for the purpose. In early April, just before Qingming Festival — a traditional holiday when Chinese sweep their ancestral graves — she set a new one-day sales record, earning an amount equal to half her regular monthly salary. With landlords slashing their rents in an attempt to find new tenants, she decided now was the right time to quit her job and fulfill her dream.
I briefed her on the do’s and don’ts of renting a storefront, paying taxes, and getting a business license. Every now and then, she’d ask me something else, and I’d give her more advice. From her questions, I could tell she was full of hope.
Sometimes I think society is like a forest. Even when a fire seems to have swept everything away, new shoots are continuously rising up from the soil.
My work is also picking up. After months working with clients over the phone and online, I can finally get on a plane and see them in person. There was a time when I didn’t enjoy business trips, but now I look forward to my next destination. And in every city I visit, I see a few more buds sprouting up.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visual elements from erhui1979/People Visial, re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)