China’s labour relations have entered a dangerous new phase, as shown by attacks on Jasic workers and activists

Tim Pringle and Anita Chan say the detention of workers and labour activists, plus the state media’s efforts to discredit them, show what lengths Chinese authorities will go to, to crush worker disputes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 3:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 9:37pm

A group of workers at Jasic Technology in Shenzhen have been protesting about inhumane conditions, unfair dismissal and harassment. Matters came to a head when they attempted to organise a factory-level trade union in July.

They are facing severe repressive measures by the authorities, with over 60 workers and supporters detained. Four workers were formally arrested on September 3 and four supporters and an NGO worker are under criminal detention.

The state-controlled Xinhua news agency placed the blame squarely on civil society organisations and foreign forces in an August 24 article, while failing to mention that the workers were protesting due to labour rights violations and state violence. Instead, it alleged that the Dagongzhe Workers’ Centre (DGZ), a Shenzhen-based labour organisation that works in partnership with Hong Kong-based Worker Empowerment, fanned the protest.

On August 27, Worker Empowerment released a statement clarifying that neither it nor DGZ organised or financially supported the workers. The statement also expressed hope that “the rights and safety of all participants [in the Jasic dispute] are legally and reasonably taken care of as soon as possible”.

This is not the first time authorities have pointed the finger at labour NGOs. In December 2015, following a coordinated round-up and temporary detention of labour activists and workers in Guangdong province, four staff from another labour NGO were formally charged. Three were given suspended prison sentences and the other was jailed for 21 months.

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The authorities are again moving against labour NGOs in China who receive external funding. Around five weeks ago, DGZ staff member Fu Changguo and the organisation’s legal official, Huang Qingnan, were detained, according to information from Worker Empowerment. Huang was released on bail, but Fu remains detained, accused of “creating a disturbance in a public place”.

As labour researchers, we share Worker Empowerment’s concerns and believe the accusations in the Xinhua report are groundless. It alleged that Fu encouraged people to attend the protest outside the Jasic plant on July 22 and circulated news on DGZ’s WeChat platform for staff and workers. In fact, DGZ merely asked supporters to travel to Pingshan and bear witness to developments outside the Jasic plant.

Moreover, the Jasic struggle had already attracted widespread attention, and news has been widely shared across social media by workers, retired party cadres, university students, academics and concerned individuals. Other social platforms following the dispute far exceed DGZ’s WeChat group in membership and reach.

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Yet, only Fu has been accused of “radicalising the incident”. Furthermore, even though Fu was at the scene of the incident, Xinhua acknowledged he was merely an observer, a far cry from “creating a disturbance in a public place, causing serious disorder”.

Huang has not been involved in the Jasic incident. As a former coordinator of DGZ, he has assisted numerous workers claiming legal compensation for industrial disease and injury. Many of these workers were abandoned by their employers after being injured. In 2007, Huang suffered a knife attack, reported in both domestic and international media, while promoting the Labour Contract Law. The attack left him with permanent injuries to his left leg.

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Afterwards, Huang returned to his hometown in Fujian Province, making occasional visits to Shenzhen to fulfil his minimal duties for DGZ. We understand that he was picked up by police in Fujian, 800km from Jasic, then taken to be held in detention in Shenzhen.

Jasic workers demand re-instatement, protest state violence

The Xinhua article correctly recognises that Jasic workers wish to establish a democratic union, in accordance with China’s Trade Union Law. They first sought help from the Pingshan District Trade Union on May 10 by submitting a petition letter on unsatisfactory working conditions and the demand to set up a factory-level union. It was signed by 28 Jasic employees.

The district-level trade union initially offered advice to workers, but when management refused to accommodate them, the union failed to defend workers who were beaten up, arrested and unfairly dismissed, and by July it was using its own social media platform to condemn workers’ attempts to win reinstatement. This was key in the workers’ decision to seek wider public support.

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It appears that support from a non-state actor carries the risk of being accused of instigating or escalating industrial action. If so, we are now entering a period of even tighter surveillance and control over workers and activists seeking to defend workers’ rights in accordance with the law. At the same time, there is little evidence of official institutions such as Communist Party-led trade unions stepping in to help workers.

The Xinhua article singles out DGZ and Worker Empowerment, framing them as instigators of the Jasic struggle. It seems this accusation is meant to delegitimise and criminalise both organisations and the workers’ demands.

We believe the report deliberately misleads the public to divert attention from the state violence the Jasic workers and their supporters have faced. To bring a just end to the dispute, authorities should release all those detained without delay and facilitate the establishment of a democratic factory-level trade union with elected representatives accountable to all Jasic workers.

Tim Pringle is a senior lecturer in the Department of Development Studies, SOAS, at the University of London. Anita Chan is co-editor of The China Journal in the Department of Political and Social Change at Australian National University. Joel Andreas, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University, also contributed to this article