Desperate Chinese are turning to mass suicide to get their government’s attention

by Robert Foyle Hunwick

BEIJING, China — The location was chosen for maximum impact: a downtown boulevard, famous for Beijing’s swankiest shops and its plushest hotels. Studded with these symbols of Western capitalist chic, Wangfujing Shopping Street could hardly be further from the more desperate concerns of rural China.

It was here that a group of about 30 men gathered on a warm spring morning and, in front of hundreds of shoppers, swallowed a quantity of pesticide. They fell to the ground en masse and, according to several eyewitnesses, foamed at the mouth.

As the men were rushed to hospital, startled crowds spread the news on social media, while the scene quickly returned to normal. Police issued a statement later that day that none had died; local reports explained they were taxi drivers from the northeast, who’d traveled to the capital to stage the protest. And there the official narrative ended.

But the fate of the men, and the extreme means of airing their grievance, reflects a tactic of last resort that’s far from uncommon. For some in China, suicide is the ultimate form of protest.

In Tibet, a cycle of clampdowns and radicalization, which began with a widespread uprising that embarrassed the government in 2008, has led to nearly 140 self-immolations in the last six years. These acts are prompted by fury at the repressive tactics of Chinese officials, according to Tibetan exile groups. The government says such acts are examples of “the Dalai Lama clique” exploiting vulnerable youths, blaming “forces abroad” that are “all aimed at separating Tibet from China.” Among the most recent was Yeshi Khando, a nun in her 40s, who set herself ablaze near a monastery in Sichuan province in early April. She is reported to have died. The fate of those who survive such protests is thought to be equally grim.

On the surface, Tibetan monks and disgruntled cabbies may not have much in common. Yet both groups were driven to abandon rational means, inflicting agonizing acts of self-harm to bring attention to their cause. The anthropologist Margery Wolf once observed of suicidal women in Mao’s era that, “In the West, we ask of suicide, ‘Why?’ In China, the question is more commonly ‘Who?’”

Tibetans-in-exile take part in a candlelight vigil following the self-immolation attempt by a monk to protest against Chinese rule in Tibet on Feb. 13, 2013.
Getty Images

Chinese suicide is often associated with an external antagonist — a tyrannical husband, a cruel boss — rather than personal issues (mental health, substance abuse). There is also a romantic tradition, from the doomed legend of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, to the honorable official and poet Qu Yuan, whose suicide by drowning is memorialized with each spring’s Dragon Boat Festival as a symbolic protest against the era’s corrupt rulers.

There’s always a narrow margin for overt sympathy in an authoritarian state — treat one group of taxi drivers sympathetically, and a hundred more might seek concessions of their own. Despite the outcry over a group of feminists detained for planning to distribute anti-harassment stickers on public buses, the gap between self-expression and dissent is growing ever closer in Xi Jinping’s China.

This doesn’t leave either side with much room to maneuver. Without an impartial judicial system, critics are backed into familiar corners, faced with the same obstacles: official indifference, inadequate legal protection, a lack of proper representation and the stifling of protest.

“When the pre-existing grievance mechanisms fail to work, some aggrieved laborers may take direct actions to protest against injustice,” said Dr. Jenny Chan, an expert on Chinese labor studies at the University of Oxford. “But suicide shouldn’t be used as a desperate means of resistance.”

The taxi drivers came from Suifenhe, a county-level city in Heilongjiang province near the Russian border. Four years ago, a new law stipulated that local drivers must be affiliated with a state-owned management company; those who left the business would be compensated (at least, according to law) but freelance drivers were prohibited. These operators typically charge large “management fees,” and with fuel costs, punitive contracts and punishing hours, many drivers struggle in a region that’s become well-known for its high unemployment.

OUR USE OF DEATH IS SIMPLY TO TESTIFY THAT WE WERE EVER ALIVE AT ALL
A CHINESE WORKER

There’s little they can do about it. While trade unions in China do exist, they are run mostly as window-dressing by Party-affiliated leaders. They might organize events or educate members on government policy, but unions don’t provide a forum for collective bargaining or for defending workers’ rights. In some cities, drivers have chosen to strike anyway. It’s one of the few options certain to command some respect from the authorities. But it’s a risky move. Local officials, judged on their record of stability, may not easily forget those who publicly embarrass them.

The alternative is the petitioning system, an age-old imperial idea that persists today. Centuries ago, the aggrieved would bring attention to acts of local injustice by taking direct action: blocking roads, kneeling in front of government offices or loudly gonging so that visiting mandarins might take notice. Failing that, they could take their case to the capital, filing their complaint with the “Letters and Petitions” bureau in Beijing.

Despite a dogged belief in the archaic system, it’s not very efficient. According to a 2004 survey of 10 million pleas registered annually by the China Petition Office, only one in every 500 were “resolved.”

While there have been several suicide bids this year in provincial cities — in Wuhan recent victims of a scam drank pesticide. And in Jinan, 10 protesters attempted to jump from a mall rooftop — those who have pursued complaints for months or years without result often choose Beijing to make their last stand, rather than their home provinces, which are further from public view. “Suicide is intensely personal,” Dr. Chan said. “And it is social.”

In August 2013, a group of 21, also from Heilongjiang,attempted mass suicide near the Beijing West rail station, after a railway company failed to provide their children with the public-service jobs they were promised. Four months later, 13 homeowners attempted the same over a failure to be compensated for demolitions. In two incidents in July last year, five petitioners drank poison in a police station, and five men and two women from Jiangsu, did the same outside the offices of the China Youth Daily newspaper. They were dissatisfied with the terms of their eviction. (Pesticides are the most common method of suicide in the country due to both their ubiquity and the unlikelihood of emergency treatment. For comparison: In the United States, more than 50 percent of suicides are by firearm.)

Sometimes, even members of the security apparatus charged with preventing these incidents can end up on the receiving end. Six former Heilongjiang police officers protested their unemployment by attempting suicide outside the leadership compound of Zhongnanhai in December. Theirs was a particularly sensitive location: locales around Tiananmen Square are heavily policed, and officers are equipped with fire extinguishers to deal with self-immolators. “I have chronic leukemia,” one of the group told Radio Free Asia. “There is no way out except to die fighting.”

Such despair is not limited to those who are persecuted directly — it can be found among those ostensibly living their own promise of the Chinese Dream, a recent political catchphrase conjuring national rejuvenation amid a lifestyle of “moderate prosperity,” that aspires to encapsulate the hopes of young Chinese. Pursuing this, many begin work in low-wage, low-status factory jobs in faraway cities, then find themselves unable to progress.

Participants dressed up to represent Foxconn workers take part in a protest against Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn, which manufactures Apple products in mainland China, outside an Apple retail outlet in Hong Kong on May 7, 2011.
Getty Images

Their plight was brought into worldwide focus after the 2010 “Foxconn suicides,” in which 18 employees attempted to kill themselves (14 successfully) in a single year. The tragedy exposed the fate of those who’d left the farm behind to “hurry toward your finest dreams, pursue a magnificent life,” as the Foxconn company’s handbook breathlessly puts it.

A detailed 2010 Asia-Pacific Journal survey by Dr. Chan and Dr. Pun Ngai about the Foxconn fatalities studied the militaristic working culture of the tech company’s vast Shenzhen production lines and concluded that, despite their educations, many migrants found the dramatic shortfall between expectations and reality simply overwhelming. “The vulnerable workers are subjected to unbearable stress and intolerable pain at times of crises,” said Dr. Chan, who compares the pressure to “a form of ‘murder.’”

As poorer from the countryside, factory workers are already outsiders, without urban-registration privileges, family or free time. But with the realization that their Chinese Dream would be impossible to realize, “Their only option was a very human one,” labor scholar Russell Leong told the survey: “To throw away or destroy their own bodies as a gesture of frustration – and of defiance.”

It is the potency of this “gesture” that unites these disenfranchised — be they monks, taxi drivers, farmers or factory workers — in their last act of empowerment. “For we who are called migrant workers,” wrote one dispirited Foxconn worker. “Our use of death is simply to testify that we were ever alive at all.”

This article is reposted from the GlobalPost with the agreement of Jenny Chan, who was interviewed for the article.

New Zealand Fast Food Workers Win Minimum Hours Guarantee

by Mike Treen, National Director, Unite

indonesia fast food nz

[Ed. note: Fast food industry workers in New Zealand have been organized by the Unite union for over a decade. Their relative strength has enabled their union to play an active role in the international campaigns to organize the fast food industry, both giving support to the Fight for $15 in the USA and receiving support from fast food workers in other countries through the IUF for their own campaigns. The photo shows a support demonstration from workers in Indonesia.-pg]

Workers in the fast food industry in New Zealand scored a spectacular victory over what has been dubbed “zero hour contracts” during a collective agreement bargaining round over the course of March and April this year.

The campaign played out over the national media as well as on picket lines. The victory was seen by many observers as the product of a determined fight by a valiant group of workers and their union, Unite. It was a morale boost for all working people after what has seemed like a period of retreat for working class struggle in recent years.

Workers in the fast food industry have long identified “zero hour contracts” as the central problem they face. These are contracts that don’t guarantee any hours per week, meanwhile workers are expected to work any shifts rostered within the workers “availability”. Managers have power to use and abuse the rostering system to reward and punish, without any real means of holding them to account.

This year, all the collective agreements with the major fast food companies (McDonald’s, Burger King, Restaurant Brands) expired on March 31. We were already in dispute with Wendy’s, as their agreement remains unresolved from last year. Unite Union was determined to end the system of zero hours and get guaranteed hours included in the new collective agreements. We had no illusions that this was going to be easy. We knew this would be a tough battle and we needed to prepare for that reality if we were to have a chance of success. At organising meetings I would sometimes use a phrase that appealed: “If you want peace, prepare for war”. I was told later it is taken from a Latin adage: “Si vis pacem, para bellum”. Whoever coined the phrase, it is a wise strategy.

Continue reading

Nike supports TPP. Here is why

Leo Gerard

America is in an abusive relationship with trade-obsessed politicians and corporations.

Despite their long history of battering the U.S. middle class with bad trade deal after bad trade deal, these lawmakers and CEOs contend workers should believe that their new proposal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), will be different. President Obama and the CEO of Nike, a company that doesn’t manufacture one shoe in the United States, got together in Oregon on Friday to urge Americans to fall once again for a trade deal.

The trade fanatics say everything will be different under the TPP – even though it is based on deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that lured American factories across the border, destroyed good-paying jobs and devastated communities. They plead: “Just come back for one more deal and see how great it will be this time!” And, like all batterers, they say: “Sorry about the terrible past; trust me about the future.”

This is trade abuse.

United Steelworkers of America.

At the Nike world headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., the chief executive officer of Air Jordans told the chief executive passenger of Air Force One that Americans should believe in the TPP because it’ll be like Santa Claus stuffing jobs down chimneys across America.

CEO Mark Parker promised that the TPP would miraculously prompt Nike, the brand that is the icon for shipping production overseas, to create 10,000 U.S. manufacturing and engineering jobs – over a decade, that is.  Not only that, Parker pronounced, the TPP will generate thousands of construction jobs and as many as 40,000 indirect positions with suppliers and service companies – again, over a decade.

Now those are some great-sounding promises! Nike employs 26,000 American workers now, a few of whom make soles in Oregon and Missouri. But presto, Parker says, the TPP will increase that number by nearly 40 percent!

The thing is, Nike could easily create 10,000 manufacturing and engineering jobs in the United States right now. No TPP required. It employs 1 million overseas, the vast majority in low-wage, high-worker-abuse countries like Vietnam, China and Indonesia. To bring 1 percent of those jobs – 10,000 – to the United States doesn’t seem like such a Herculean, TPP-requiring task, especially considering Nike’s massive profit margin.

The average cost to make a pair of Nike shoes is $30. The American sneaker consumer, who may pay $130 to swoosh, is certainly not getting the benefit of low prices from Nike’s cheap overseas production.

Instead of manufacturing in America, Nike chooses to “just do it” in countries where it knows workers are abused. In the 1990s, the media slammed the corporation for sweatshop conditions in its foreign factories. Like a typical abuser, Nike promised to reform its ways. It said in a news release last week, “Our past lessons have fundamentally changed the way we do business.”

Well, not really. The company admitted in 2011 that two Indonesian factories making its shoes subjected workers to “serious and egregious” physical and verbal abuse. Nike told the San Francisco Chronicle then that there was “little it could do to stop” the cruelty.

And it accomplished exactly that – little. Just last month, a three-part series in the Modesto Bee described sickening conditions in Indonesian factories producing Nike shoes: Workers paid $212 a month for six-day, 55-hour work weeks. Workers denied the country’s minimum wage and overtime pay. Workers paid so little they couldn’t afford to care for their children. Workers fired for trying to improve conditions.

 

 

Nike Sweatshops

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Last week, the world’s largest athletic gear maker said, “Nike fully supports the inclusion of strong labor provisions (in the TPP) because we believe that will drive higher industry standards and create economic growth that benefits everyone.”

Promises, promises. Why doesn’t Nike simply insist on higher standards at its factories? What exactly is there in a trade deal with 11 Pacific Rim nations that is essential to Nike establishing higher standards and stopping the abuse of workers in factories making its shoes?

Oh, yeah, the American middle class, which has suffered most from past trade deals, is not allowed to know that.  The TPP is secret. Well, except to the privileged corporate CEOs who helped write the thing.

In pushing for “Fast Track” authority to shove the deal through a Congress that has abdicated its Constitutional responsibility to oversee foreign trade, President Obama admitted “past deals did not always live up to the hype.”

That’s not quite right. It’s actually way worse than that. Past deals killed U.S. factories and jobs. Since NAFTA, they’ve cost Americans 57,000 factories and 5 million good, family-supporting jobs.

Just three years ago, trade fanatics promised that the Korean deal, called KORUS, would definitely provide more exports and more jobs. Instead, U.S. goods exports to Korea dropped 6 percent, while imports from Korea surged 19 percent. So the U.S. goods trade deficit with Korea swelled 104 percent. That means the loss of 93,000 America jobs in just the first three years of KORUS.

It’s the same story with the other trade deals that followed NAFTA, including the agreements that enabled China to enter the World Trade Organization. The Commerce Department announced just last week the largest monthly expansion in the trade deficit in 19 years. The deficit with China for March was the biggest ever.

What this means is that instead of exporting goods, America is exporting jobs. Foreign workers get the jobs making the stuff Americans buy. And they’re often employed by factories producing products for so-called American corporations like Nike. They’re employed by factories that collapse and kill hundreds. Factories that catch on fire and immolate workers trapped inside. Factories where workers are ill-paid, overworked and slapped when they can’t meet unrealistic production quotas. Factories that pollute grievously.

American workers no longer are willing to engage in this abusive relationship with trade fanatics. They no longer believe the promises of change. They don’t want the federal money TPP fanatics promise them to pay for retraining as underpaid burger flippers after their middle class-supporting factory jobs are shipped overseas. They’re over trade pacts that benefit only multi-national corporations like Nike.

To Fast Track and the TPP, they say, “Just Don’t Do It!”

Leo Gerard. President . United Steelworkers of America.

Follow Leo W. Gerard on Twitter: www.twitter.com/uswblogger

 

 

Labor in the Fields of California

Immigrant Farm Workers Pull Leaves off Vines in a Coachella Valley Grape Vineyardby David Bacon
When hundreds of people marched to the Los Angeles City Council last October, urging it to pass a resolution supporting a farm worker union fight taking place in California’s San Joaquin Valley, hardly anyone had ever heard the name of the company involved. That may not be the case much longer. Gerawan Farming, one of the country’s largest growers, with 5,000 people picking its grapes and peaches, is challenging the California law that makes farm workers’ union rights enforceable. Lining up behind Gerawan are national anti-union think tanks. What began as a local struggle by one grower family to avoid a union contract is getting bigger, and the stakes are getting much higher.

The Gerawan workers got the City Council’s support and, on February 10, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education passed a resolution that went beyond just an encouraging statement. The LAUSD purchases Gerawan’s Prima label peaches and grapes through suppliers for 1,270 schools and 907,000 students. The LAUSD’s resolution, proposed by board member Steve Zimmer, requires the district to verify that Gerawan Farming is abiding by state labor laws, “and to immediately implement the agreement issued by the neutral mediator and the state of California.”

Verifying compliance, however, may not be easy.  In mid-March a hearing on Gerawan’s violations of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) ended after 104 days of testimony by 130 witnesses.  Continue reading

Striking Oil Workers Emerge Victorious Thanks in Part to Green Group Solidarity

by Kate Aronoff

Due, in part, to the environmental concerns posed by unsafe refineries, strikers quickly gained the support of green groups. (Photo: USW Oil Workers)

Yesterday afternoon, the United Steelworkers reached a tentative contract agreement with negotiators from Shell Oil Co., which has represented Chevron, ExxonMobil and other oil companies affected by the union’s now nearly six-week strike. Even as the strike continues in many workplaces, yesterday’s victory is the hard-won result of careful organizing and some promising collaboration.

Beginning on February 1 — after a particularly contentious round of negotiations — an estimated 3,800 workers kicked off a strike action across nine refineries in Texas, California, Kentucky and Washington. As of Thursday’s truce, the strike had grown to include 7,000 workers across 15 refineries, petrochemical and cogeneration plants, including the nation’s largest refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. In total, the United Steelworkers, or USW, represents 30,000 members, and holds leverage over an impressive 64 percent of the United States’ refining capacity.

United Steelworkers’ spokeswoman Lynne Hancock says that she hopes the past several weeks’ events will serve as a sign to oil companies “that we are serious when we bring up issues … that they come from the membership.”

Although the oil workers brought demands around wages and benefits, union negotiators’ central demands were for safer working conditions and a scale-back in companies’ hiring of non-union, often temporary workers. Chiefly, Hancock said, health and safety concerns were “key in this round of bargaining.” Long hours, scant safety regulations and lax training requirements — the oil workers argued — have contributed to workplace environments harmful to not only employees, but the communities surrounding the plants and refineries where they work.

While the four-year contract — covering wages, benefits, working conditions, and health and safety measures — received unanimous support from the rank-and-file National Oil Bargaining Policy Committee, the end of the strike remains contingent on plant locals’ negotiations with management over “local concerns,” such as seniority and vacation time. Because the national agreement has yet to be approved by either USW locals or international leadership, the union is not yet discussing the details of the pending contract. Hancock, however, said that she does not “anticipate there being any problems with it getting ratified at local union bargaining tables.”

A press release by the USW yesterday stated that the proposed contract includes “calls for the immediate review of staffing and workload assessments, with USW safety personnel involved at every facility,” as well as “daily maintenance and repair work in the plants,” yearly wage increases, a joint review of plant staffing needs, and an agreement that hiring plans be developed “in conjunction with recruitment and training programs.” Negotiators had rejected seven previous contract proposals from Shell before Thursday’s agreement.

In addition to the strike, workers took part in an ongoing series of rallies and guerrilla film screenings at refineries and corporate headquarters. One delegation of workers traveled to Europe to garner international support for their actions; alongside the British union UNITE and Divest London, oil workers demonstrated outside a speech by Shell CEO Ben van Buerden in the British capital. USW Local 675 in Torrance, Calif., took a particularly creative route, delivering a pile of horse manure to ExxonMobil offices in response to the company’s failure to respond to inquiries about the health impacts of a mid-February refinery explosion that left four workers injured.

Due, in part, to the environmental concerns posed by unsafe refineries, strikers quickly gained the support of green groups, including the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the Sierra Club and Communities for a Better Environment in the Bay Area, which walked the picket line with workers at a Tesoro refinery in Martinez, Calif. Joe Uehlein, a long-time unionist and executive director of the Labor Network for Sustainability, urged fellow environmentalists to support USW workers in a statement released at the strike’s onset.

“As we work to protect the earth from climate change,” he said, “it is particularly important that we advocate for the needs of workers in fossil fuel industries whose well-being must not be sacrificed to the necessity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Hancock echoed this sentiment, noting, “The workers are like canaries in the mine … They can see what’s going on and what happens before something tragic happens.” She also saw environmental groups’ support as a major boon to the strike. “It is encouraging to other unions to see that working with environmental groups helps you in your bargaining strength and in improving the work situation for the workers,” Hancock told me. Notably, the United Steelworkers were a founding member of the Blue Green Alliance, which seeks to unite “America’s largest labor unions and its most influential environmental organizations,” according to the group’s website.

The fight for the United Steelworkers is far from over, but the last six weeks have proven a galvanizing force for the union’s membership. Just coming off conference calls with locals around the country, Hancock observed “a lot of energy [among workers], and the motivation to stay involved and support the locals that are still having trouble on local issues.”

As collective bargaining comes under fresh attack by Republicans in Illinois and Wisconsin, the oil workers’ victory this week might be one of the month’s most hopeful headlines — especially with regards to organized labor. Amid dropping oil prices and divestment campaigners, fossil fuel companies, now more than ever, are on the defensive. Given thenot-so-secret ties between fossil fuel magnates and the GOP, ties between unions and green groups built during the strike could well have just bolstered the foundation for one of history’s most powerful — and necessary — alliances.

Kate Aronoff is a History major at Swarthmore College active in the climate justice movement, including Swarthmore Mountain Justice‘s campaign to divest the college’s endowment from fossil fuels. She currently serves as a Board Member for the Responsible Endowments Coalition. Find her on Twitter @KateAronoff.

China’s “factory girls” have grown up—and are going on strike

Originally posted on Quartz:

GUANGZHOU, China—Yang Liyan, a 30-year-old migrant worker, says she has cried twice in the past year. Once was when she was having her first meal in jail, and again after she was released and talking to her co-workers about her ordeal over dinner.

Yang was waiting for a scheduled meeting with the management of the Xinsheng Shoe Factory in the industrial metropolis of Guangzhou on Nov. 3, 2014, when she was thrown into the back of a police van. A total of 14 workers, including Yang and several other women, had gathered on behalf of 114 co-workers to fight for the severance pay they said they were owed after a three-month strike. They were arrested for “sabotaging production and business operations” (破坏生产经营), and in Yang’s case, jailed for 25 days.

When the police asked her to sign her name on paperwork calling her a suspect, Yang said she refused: “I’m…

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The Legacy of the Labor Movement and the Civil Rights Movement

By Rachel Johnson,

300Willie_Pelote

Q&A with Willie Pelote Sr., AFSCME

Willie L. Pelote, Sr. has served as California Political and Legislative Director for the 1.4 million members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) since 1995.

 

Can you describe how you got started in the labor movement and how you came to work for AFSCME?

I’m from a family of nine and I grew up on our family farm in Clyo, Georgia. When you grow up on a farm, you work from the day you can walk and learning about hard work in that environment has been a major influence in my life.  My first job outside of working on my grandparents’ farm was a union job. It was then that I learned about the power workers can achieve when they stand together.  Everyone supported each other and our negotiations helped people earn a living wage to support their families.

After coming home from Vietnam, I was stationed in Sacramento. While going to school and working as a Sergeant-of-Arms at the State Capitol, I met Willie Brown, then Speaker of the State Assembly. After working with his office for several years, I was asked to come to work with AFSCME. That was over 19 years ago. I can’t believe I’ve been given such an incredible opportunity to work in the largest public sector union in the country and to also represent 176,000 Californians. I stayed with AFSCME for nearly 20 years for many reasons. I enjoyed working with all levels of government, driving campaigns to help working people in our state, and getting to know our members; but I was always most passionate about the idea that I was helping working people like my family make it in California.

As a labor leader in CA, what work are you most proud of?

I’m proud that we have been able to give a united collective voice to our members at their worksite and the agency to take part in decision-making about the vital services they provide to people in our great state.  I’m also proud that we’ve been persistent with holding elected officials accountable to working people in California.

During the civil rights movement there was a very clear intersection with the labor movement.  What are the opportunities to continue that legacy today? Continue reading

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