The High Human Cost of Creating a Real Union in China

Shenzhen union

 

More than 50 students and workers were arrested this summer during a weeks-long struggle to form a union at Jasic Technology in Shenzhen, China.

by Elaine Hui

University students lent tremendous support. But their employer and the Chinese government cracked down on both the workers and the students with firings, detention, surveillance, and the threat of jail sentences.

Workers at the welding-equipment manufacturer Shenzhen Jasic Technology initiated the process of forming a union in May. Among their biggest complaints were arbitrary fines and the company’s underpayment into government-run funds that help workers pay rent or buy houses.

Workers followed the law in setting up a union, including requesting and receiving permission from upper-level unions affiliated with the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the only unions authorized in China.

In response to a rising tide of labor disputes, since the mid-2000s the ACFTU has built up more workplace branches, especially in foreign-invested firms, through a top-down effort. But these unions are notoriously ineffective at representing workers, focusing instead on organizing recreational activities and providing small holiday gifts. They mainly serve to preempt organizing.

Moreover, many companies are still not unionized, including Jasic, which is listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange. The company employs 1,000 workers at this factory.

‘WE ARE LIKE TINY BUGS’

After workers collected signatures to form a union, in July the district-level union federation and the company denounced their effort as illegal—since the company had quickly formed a union to forestall the workers’ effort.

Jasic changed the job duties of union supporters and fired six of the most vocal. On July 20 the sacked workers attempted to return to work, but were beaten up and taken to the police station. Twenty other workers and supporters who went to the police station to protest were also arrested.

“The boss owns billions of yuan [equivalent to hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars] while we toil all year long just to make 20 to 30 thousand [$3,000-$4,000],” said a former Jasic worker in a speech at the protest. “What’s wrong to ask for a raise and get back the illegal deductions from our wages?”

Addressing the police, the former worker added, “When the boss says we’re making trouble, you, the cops, trust them and rush to the factory, beat us up and take us to the police station… In your eyes we are just like tiny bugs waiting to be stepped on.”

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

The Jasic workers’ struggle has attracted significant attention in China.

Their demand to set up a union is much less common than demands for raises, payments into pension insurance, or compensation related to factory shutdowns or relocations, which have been the focal points of thousands of labor disputes in China in recent years.

Of the 1,745 collective actions by workers listed on China Labor Bulletin’s strike map between September 2017 and August 2018, the Jasic struggle is the only one over organizing a union.

Publicity through Chinese social media platforms has overcome the mainstream media blackout on strikes and labor disputes in the increasingly repressive political environment under President Xi Jinping.

As they learned of the struggle, workers from other factories and university students from throughout the country rushed to Shenzhen to support the Jasic workers. “Students today are workers tomorrow,” said a student from Beijing at one protest. “People asked me why I am here. I asked them back, ‘How can I not be here?’”

CRACKDOWN

Disturbed by the outpouring of support, on July 27 the government arrested 29 Jasic workers and supporters, accusing them of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a criminal charge often used by the government to suppress protests.

Chinese Worker-Activist Speaking Tour

Chinese labor activists are touring the U.S. to speak about the book Striking to Survive: Workers’ Resistance to Factory Relocations in China (Haymarket, 2018). Countering the popular myth that Chinese workers are ‘stealing American jobs,’ Striking to Survive documents a recent wave of factory closures in China’s Pearl River Delta and struggles by workers there to hold onto their jobs, their pensions, and their livelihoods. The events will also be an opportunity to hear recent news from China’s labor movement.

  • September 30-October 3: Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Detroit
  • October 5-11: Bay Area

For a list of events, or to order the book, visit: bit.ly/strikesurvive.

In response, workers and students formed a support group to demand that the government release all the detainees and respect the workers’ right to unionize. Thousands of workers and students signed online petitions.

Xinhua News, the government’s mouthpiece, has attempted to scapegoat two labor NGOs (similar to worker centers in the U.S.)—Shenzhen-based Dagongzhe and Hong Kong-based Worker Empowerment—for the workers’ actions. The government arrested a staff member and the registered agent of Dagongzhe. In 2015, the Chinese government launched a crackdown on groups like these, smearing them as foreign-funded organizations attempting to undermine the country’s stability.

Before dawn on August 24, riot police with full gear and shields broke into the apartment where members of the support group were staying and arrested more than 50 students and workers.

On the same day, two workers involved in the support group and two activists from the website “Pioneer,” which had been releasing frequent updates on the struggle, were arrested in Beijing.

CALL FOR SOLIDARITY

Most of the detainees have since been released, but four Jasic workers are still in prison awaiting trial on criminal charges. Two workers from other factories and six activists are still in detention and at high risk of facing criminal charges too.

Meanwhile the released student supporters have been disciplined by their universities and are under police surveillance at home.

Many of those detained have been denied the right to meet with their lawyers. The government has also constantly harassed and threatened lawyers willing to represent them. A number of lawyers were warned by authorities that those involved in the case would be putting their legal licenses at risk.

Solidarity actions have been organized in Hong Kong, Germany, and the U.S. You can sign the petition calling for the release of the arrested workers and students at bit.ly/jasicsolidarity.

Elaine Hui is a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State University.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #475. Don’t miss an issue, subscribe today.

“We, The Workers”: Documentary Shows Tide Turn Against Chinese Labor Activism

China Digital Times

The conviction last September of three prominent labor activists for “gathering crowds to disturb social order” may have marked the final end of an era of “pragmatic authoritarianism” toward labor organization. The shift towards a harder line was captured by director Wen Hai in his new documentary “We, The Workers,” which appeared earlier this month at the International Festival Rotterdam. James Griffiths highlighted the film at CNN last week:

While much has been written about and , Wen’s film offers rare insight into how such collective action is planned and organized, and how hard NGO employees try to stay within the moving goalposts of what activism is permissible in China.

[…] According to Manfred Elfstrom, an expert on China movements at Cornell University, for a long time such groups were tolerated by the government and even occasionally encouraged by local authorities. This all changed in 2015, he said, when “the crackdowns have gotten increasingly severe.”

The sudden shift in attitude caught even Wen off guard. “During the early process, I didn’t realize that it would be a danger and risk for me … to make such a film,” he said.

[… E]ven though the activists work within the law, they often aren’t protected by it. During filming, organizer Peng Jiayong was abducted and savagely beaten, ending up in hospital. Since 2015, dozens of other activists and lawyers have been detained, arrested and harassed.

[…] Wen is optimistic. “Even though now the situation and crackdown is very depressing, in the long term, ’ agency, their ability to defend their rights, and the awakening of their human consciousness is improving,” he said. [Source]

The activists imprisoned last September were accused, in a video shared on Sina Weibo by the Communist Youth League and Global Times, of cooperating with foreign plans to tip China into instability and revolution. In the CNN report, Wen offers a sharply different perspective based on his past work in the Middle East and North Africa, arguing that independent organizations and other civil society groups could offer a vital bulwark against chaos and catalyst for positive social change. “(Peng) Jiayong and the other NGO workers,” he says, “are a very constructive power in rebuilding our society.”

On Twitter, Griffiths described “We, The Workers” as “one of the most inspiring films I’ve seen in years, testament to [the] power of solidarity and resistance.” The trailer:

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/ndY1294mVDk?rel=0

South China Morning Post’s Clarence Tsui recently described Wen’s various brushes with the Chinese security apparatus, his eventual exile in Hong Kong, and his recent collaborations with activist and “We, The Workers” producer and with artist Ai Weiwei.

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The End of China’s Labor Regime?

by Kevin Lin

Workers at the First Affiliated Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine on a 2013 strike for higher pay.

Ed. note:  The New York Times Business Day section (10 March 2016) included a feature article entitled “Not the Chinese Dream” by Owen Guo, that highlighted the inability or unwillingness of China’s 257 million [internal] migrant workers to occupy the thousands of vacant urban apartments that are weighing down the Chinese economy.  Kevin Lin’s article poses the structural causes that underlie this socio-economic crisis.

A key ingredient of China’s Post-Mao economic “miracle” is a labour regime entrenched in the export-oriented consumer manufacturing sector and premised on despotic exploitation, institutional discrimination and political exclusion of labour. It is built on the back of massive rural-to-urban migration in the context of a stagnant agricultural sector and rising disparity in rural-urban incomes from the 1990s. The rural migrants are not only placed under exploitative labour relations under the Party-state’s market liberalisation, but also institutionally discriminated against by the urban household registration system that denies them of permanent urban residency and entrenches the transient nature of their labour migration, and politically excludes  them from organising autonomous labour unions and asserting as an organised social force. This combination, by no means unique in the history of capitalist development, produces an abundant and seemingly endless supply of not only cheap and disposable but disciplined, fragmented and atomised labour. However, having help propel China into a global economic power, the reproduction of this labour regime is becoming increasingly unsustainable.

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A New Year Message from China’s Labor Community

A 2016 New Year’s Message from China’s Labor Community

劳工六人图

Dear fellow workers, compatriots, and friends from around the world: Happy New Year!

Toward the end of 2015, the labor community in China experienced an unprecedented attack. A group of activists who have dedicated years to defending the rights and interests of workers were detained, monitored and interrogated by the police. It could have been a moment for fear and paranoia to set in. But those in the labor community and other walks of life responded quickly by drafting a petition to the Communist Party Central Committee, National People’s Congress, and State Council. The petition described in no uncertain terms the severe and widespread violations of workers’ rights and interests over the last few decades, and the inevitable emergence of independent labor NGOs and worker centers and their valuable contribution to the protection of labor rights and social justice, and demanded the release of the detained activists. In less than two weeks, over 490 people added their names to this petition, and over 60 Chinese lawyers joined a legal aid team. This response was followed by petitions, appeals, and demonstrations by over 200 organizations and thousands of individuals from the international labor and academic community in over 40 countries condemning the crackdown and expressing support for the arrested labor activists.

Their calls, however, fell on the deaf ears of the Chinese authorities. The detained activists have to this day still not been allowed to meet with their lawyers. In addition, the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus—the Xinhua News Agency, People’s Daily and China Central Television (CCTV)—launched a smear campaign against these activists, in particular Zeng Feiyang (曾飞洋), essentially sentencing them without a trial in the court of public opinion. Feiyang’s wife and child have been intimidated, and Zhu Xiaomei (朱小梅) has been separated from her baby daughter, whom she was breastfeeding when she was detained. The families of the other detained activists—He Xiaobo (何晓波), Meng Han (孟晗), Peng Jiayong (彭家勇), Deng Xiaoming (邓小明)—are all sick with fear, and the whereabouts of another former worker-turned-collective bargaining specialist, Chen Huihai (陈辉海), is still unclear. Their treatment reflects a cowardly approach to the rule of law, and the criminal proceedings are rife with legal and procedural unfairness.

Fellow workers, compatriots, and friends: If the rights and interests of workers who make up the large majority of China’s population cannot be protected, if workers are increasingly deprived of their economic, political, cultural, and social rights, if the confrontations between officials and citizens, workers and employers, rich and poor, continues to worsen, then what are the prospects for everyone to live in a free, equal, fair, democratic, law-based society where “socialism is the core value”? It is doubtful that even our most basic survival and security can be assured in such a society!

Workers on strike at Lide Shoe Factory in April, 2015, in Guangdong.

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International Human Rights Day: How Celebrated in Hong Kong

by Paul Garver

free chinese labor activists

I am writing this on the evening of 9th December in the USA, but in Hong Kong it is already the morning of 10th December. At this moment labor and human rights activists are converging on the Western Police Station in Hong Kong to demand that the Mainland Chinese authorities in neighboring Guangdong Province release several labor rights activists rounded up over the last few days.

December 10th is International Human Rights Day, intended to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Chinese authorities, panicked by an accelerating wave of actions by workers protesting factory closures and non-payment of wages, are trying to stifle workers’ desperate defensive protests by detaining labor rights activists and closing worker rights centers.

This is no trivial matter. The Pearl River Delta on the mainland opposite Hong Kong represents the largest and densest concentration of industrial workers on the planet. The Chinese Communist Party and local government authorities above all want to maintain a subservient and docile working class. In order to do so, they are willing to crush the worker centers that, in the absence of genuine labor unions in China, offer the few sparks of hope and support for workers struggling for their basic rights and working conditions.

The Hong Kong labor and human rights activists, who recently fought a brave and protracted battle of their own for democratic rights in Hong Kong, are acting out of solidarity with their Mainland China compatriots who lack such fundamental rights of free association.

We in our turn must demonstrate our solidarity with and support for rights activists both in Mainland China and in Hong Kong. If human rights are not universal, they are not secure anywhere.

Stay tuned for the measures that these courageous Chinese activists will be asking their sisters and brothers elsewhere to take in support and solidarity.

Chinese Authorities Detain Labor Rights Activists

by Paul Garver

  • china image

Worker rights activists in Southern China are being rounded up and detained in a wave of arrests. These legitimate activists have been representing lower wage workers in their struggles for better working conditions and higher wages. In the absence of genuine labor unions, workers are unable to assert their rights without recourse to the worker rights centers these activists have maintained.

Hong Kong labor activists are reporting on this crisis daily at https://www.facebook.com/redballoonsolidarity/.

Like this page and follow it for updates and possible solidarity actions.

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

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Searching for the Union: The workers’ movement in China 2011-13

China Labour Bulletin

CLB-searchingfor the union
[Editorial Note: For many years the China Labour Bulletin (CLB) has been a reliable source for information on and analysis of the workers’ movement in China. Alhough the CLB remains highly critical of the official trade union structures, its editors have documented and encouraged efforts by certain regional union officials to initiate badly needed reforms essential for meeting the workers’ rising demands for a genuine voice in the workplace. However, as this excellent new report shows, the real impetus for positive change is coming from the rising consciousness of Chinese workers themselves.–Paul Garver]

China’s workers have emerged over the last few years as a strong, unified and increasingly active collective force. Workers have time and again demonstrated the will and the ability to stand up to abusive and arrogant managements and to demand better pay and working conditions.

However, workers are still hampered by the lack of an effective trade union that can maintain solidarity, bargain directly with managements and protect labour leaders from reprisals.  As a result, workers are turning to labour rights groups that can advise and support their collective actions while, at the same time, demanding more of the official trade union and putting pressure on it to change.

In China labour Bulletin’s new research report on the workers’ movement, published today, we examine this evolving relationship between the workers, the trade union and civil society and look at how the government is struggling to respond to rapid social and economic change. Continue reading

Is there blood on your iPhone? How we can help Chinese workers at Foxconn

Paul Garver, who frequently posts on China as part of the Talking Union team, spoke on a panel on China at the recent LabourStart Global Solidarity conference.  Here are his interesting comments on Foxconn, the mega manufacturer of electronic devices for Apple and other companies.

We will be presenting additional videos of conference events over the next week or so.

What to read on China

by Stuart Elliott

With President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner taking part in a major summit with China, it’s a good time to call attention to the excellent article in the latest issue of New Politics.  Au Loong Yu’s “China: End of a Model…Or the Birth of a New One?” is one of the finest and most informative articles on the Chinese economy I’ve read in a long time.

While Tula Connell on the AFL-CIO blog points to some fine articles recommending wiser policies to aid US workers,  Au Loong Yu’s really gets to the heart of the long-term importance of the “China model.”

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