Labour advocate helping Dongguan factory strike arrested over WeChat message

Lin Dong facing public disorder charge over strike-related 'online rumour', but rights groups say it is part of crackdown on labour unrest

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 7:19pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 7:21pm

A labour rights advocate who was advising sports-shoe factory workers waging one of Dongguan city’s biggest strikes has been arrested on criminal charges of disturbing public order.

Lin Dong, a member of the non-governmental Chunfeng Labour Dispute Service, was detained yesterday by police in Dongguan’s Gaobu township, according to his colleagues.

His arrest was seen as part of the government’s wider crackdown on labour rights activists and groups in the wake of growing labour flare-ups in the vast factory belt of Guangdong province, according to lawyers and labour organisations.

Tens of thousands of workers with shoe manufacturer Yue Yuen Industrial (Holdings), which supplies Adidas and Nike, have been on strike at the Taiwanese-owned factory for 16 days over insufficient benefits such as insurance. The workers are demanding a one-time lump sum as compensation.

Police took issue with one of Lin’s online postings claiming there was a strike at Shijie township, possibly inspired by the Yue Yuen industrial action.

The government believes our job has led to the big strikes. So they decided to [teach] us a lesson
Zhang Zhiru, labour NGO leader

There was a flurry of pictures and online messages last Tuesday about the Shijie strike, which was not reported by mainland media. It involved some 30,000 electronics factory workers unhappy with what they deemed unfair pay and benefits, according to blogs and online messages.

Police said Lin posted “inaccurate information” tantamount to an online rumour, which was made criminal by the central government if these are shared and commented on a certain number of times.

The Gaobu police refused to comment when reached by phone.

But Zhang Zhiru, director of Chunfeng, told the South China Morning Post yesterday that Lin only sent a message to a WeChat group of 11 people, with a disclaimer that the information he was sending was unverified.

Zhang believes Lin’s arrest was linked to the strike, in which Chunfeng Labour Dispute Service provided legal assistance for the factory workers and gave them advice”, and that it is a warning message to the labour NGO.

“If it is really about the [online] rumours, then why is it that the police from Gaobu, instead of the police from Shijie, came after Lin?’” Zhang said.

“The government believes our job has led to the big strikes. So they decided to [teach] us a lesson,” Zhang said.

The Guangdong Labor Union, supervised by Guangdong authorities, has decided to investigate possible labour law violations by the Yue Yuen plant.

Despite its rare move of launching a dialogue with the workers, observers say the punishment against Lin indicates that the authorities still see social unrest as a threat.

Duan Yi, a prominent labour lawyer, said it was not the central government’s official policy to suppress labour strikes, but this is common practice by local governments who share vast interests, such as taxes, in the companies involved.

Duan believes some officials might see more organised workers as a threat to authority.

“The government might think we are creating trouble for them,” Zhang, from Chunfeng, said. “Many other factories in Dongguan, which share the same problem of not paying full social security contributions for the workers, also feel a lot of pressure at this point.

“The workers trust us as an independent third party, and I hope that the government can see the truth that we do more good than harm to help solve the crisis,” Zhang said.

The Yue Yuen workers, many of whom have remained on the picket lines despite an estimated 70 per cent of the workforce returning to the factory floor, have promised to continue the action until the company makes good on its promises of compensation before next year.

Last Thursday, the factory’s shares fell 5.3 per cent – the most in nine months in Hong Kong trading as the strike disrupted output, according to Bloomberg.