Shenzhen NGO worker Su Yuan has been forced to fight for her rights after about 60 men evicted her and five colleagues from their office in August. Their ordeal was part of a seven-month Guangdong crackdown that shuttered at least eight non-governmental labour organisations in Shenzhen. Su talks about how they and their group, called the Little Grass Workers' Home, were mistreated.
When and why did you start to work for a labour NGO?
I joined the Little Grass Workers' Home in 2007 after graduating from China Women's University in Beijing with a degree in social work. The NGO was founded by a factory worker in 2003 to advocate labour rights after he was diagnosed with poisoning by benzene [a carcinogen]. There are not many chances for children who grow up in small villages to receive an education, and half of my classmates from a rural junior high school in Hunan dropped out to work on assembly lines in the Pearl River Delta as child labour. We educate workers so that they understand their rights, provide free counselling in labour disputes, and visit four hospitals in the outlying Baoan district every week to help workers injured in industrial accidents.
What happened to your NGO during the crackdown?
We had been facing huge pressure from the authorities and landlords since June, although then Guangdong party boss Wang Yang had pledged to make the province the first on the mainland to ease registration requirements for NGOs starting from July. On August 30, more than 60 strong men in security guard uniforms rushed into our office, evicted everyone, threw away our property and welded the door shut. We called the police, but they came late and refused to investigate the attack.
A few days later, we were fined 10,000 yuan (HK$12,300) and ordered to close by the Baoan police bureau's firefighting department, because they said our office did not meet fire safety regulations. Tax officers called on us to check if we had paid enough taxes, even though we are supported by Oxfam Hong Kong and do not generate any income. Two colleagues and I were also forced by landlords to move out of our rented flats after they came under a lot of pressure from the authorities. Several volunteers said police had warned them not to work with us. We decided to sue the firefighting department over the unreasonable fine and the Baoan police bureau for its failure to act. We finally found a new office in October, but were forced to move out again after just two weeks. To protect ourselves, we have decided not to disclose our new address to the media.
What happened to other labour NGOs in Shenzhen?
At least eight labour groups have been shuttered since February, including the Yuandian Worker Service Centre, the Shenzhen Migrant Worker Centre, the Green Grass Worker Service Centre, the Times Female Worker Service Centre and the Hand-in-hand Labour Activities Camp. The Shenzhen Spring Breeze Labour Disputes Service Centre was the first to be hit. The landlord demolished its signboard and cut off water and power supplies. It is ironic that the authorities have promised publicly to take a more open-minded approach to NGOs, and yet at the same time held a widespread crackdown on us. More than 100 scholars from 15 countries have signed an open letter to the Guangdong government to protest at the apparently systematic repression of the province's labour NGOs, but the situation has not improved. Our office was attacked two weeks after the letter was issued in mid-August, and the Hand-in-hand Labour Activities Camp was shuttered in September.
Is your NGO the first to sue the Shenzhen authorities over the crackdown?
Yes, as far as I know. However, the Baoan District People's Court handed down a verdict late last month that went against us, saying the police bureau had done its job by sending police officers to the scene. The police denied it was an attack and said instead that the incident was simply a civil dispute. That was why it did not investigate. Our group had to pay 50 yuan in legal fees for the court hearing.
Why do the Guangdong authorities want to shut down labour NGOs?
It's an interesting question. I have heard that while the government claimed to be loosening registration requirements for NGOs from July, it is trying to shut down all the independent ones, so that only those recognised by authorities can survive. While they were shuttering independent labour NGOs, the Shenzhen authorities vowed to set up 700 government-funded community centres to help migrant workers uphold their rights. But many migrant workers who checked out the official legal aid service told us that its lawyers were quite bureaucratic and indifferent to their grievances. We believe the authorities fear foreign-funded groups and organisations that lobby for rights may organise large-scale strikes, incite protests or trigger social unrest. Our phones are sometimes monitored ahead of sensitive anniversaries or major festivals.
Su Yuan spoke to Fiona Tam