Pearl Briefing

Labour arbitration law could have prevented worker's suicide

If sacked shoe factory striker Zhou Jianrong's suicide speeds passage of labour arbitration law, it will have saved jobs of others fighting for rights

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 July, 2014, 5:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 July, 2014, 5:12am

On Thursday, more than 100 representatives of labour groups from around the nation, workers and the family of Zhou Jianrong gathered in Guangzhou to mourn her death.

Seven days earlier, the 49-year-old worker had leapt to her death from the fourth floor of the GCL Footwear Factory complex in Shenzhen. Less than 24 hours earlier, she had been fired from a job she held for 12 years, following a long-running dispute with management, according to China Labour Bulletin, a rights group.

Zhou leaves behind two daughters and a husband, and questions waiting to be answered. Most prominent of these is whether her death will cloud the controversial passage of the proposed Regulations on Enterprise Collective Consultations and Collective Contracts, scheduled to be vetted by the Guangdong People's Congress next week.

"Her death underscores the urgent need to pass these regulations to force employers to negotiate with workers and forbid them from firing workers during those negotiations," said Zeng Feiyang, director of the Guangdong Panyu Migrant Workers Centre.

"If the law had been passed earlier, this tragic death could have been avoided," Zeng said. "Workers would at least know they wouldn't be fired and wouldn't need to defend their rights at the cost of their lives."

Her death underscores the urgent need to pass these regulations
Zeng Feiyang, labour activist

Zhou was one of 109 workers fired in three batches by the factory following a series of strikes they staged in May. She was sacked on July 16, the day before her death.

Her suicide led to further protests on July 17 and 18. More than 40 mainland labour rights groups and at least 1,400 workers signed an open letter expressing condolences while criticising the factory's management. The letter also called for a better legal framework to protect workers' rights.

The proposed regulations were drafted by the Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions in response to rising labour disputes. If passed, they will set tighter rules for collective labour negotiations that could provide an effective arbitration channel for workers and employers to avoid industrial action.

The proposed rules require employers to negotiate contracts with workers collectively - covering wages, working hours, rest days, workload, occupational safety, health and legal protection - provided that one third of employees have submitted a written request. Employers would have 30 days to respond.

The draft says employers cannot sack workers who go on strike or stall production if they do not get timely responses to their requests. Strikes also will be banned during negotiations. Employers will be criminally liable if they refuse to negotiate.

The regulations are likely to be passed within a week. They are staunchly backed by labour groups but opposed by Hong Kong manufacturers, so the legislative body will need to balance both sides .