The rise of Hong Kong student activist group DC Labour Rights

A human rights group run by high-school students is taking on some big challenges

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 August, 2015, 9:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 August, 2015, 12:09pm

While most people spend at least some of their teen years thinking about what they want to be when they grow up, a small proportion are already working hard to get there. DC Labour Rights, a human rights campaign group, is made up of a dozen Discovery Bay College students who manage to balance schoolwork with activism.

In 2012, inspired by humanities teacher Bruce Taylor, the group, originally all girls, chose their first battle: electronics manufacturer VTech. In June that year, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights (The Institute), a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to defending the rights of workers, published a report about VTech's human rights abuses of workers in its Chinese factories.

"Mr Taylor had the idea to initiate a student-run group. He has very strong political beliefs and while other teachers would say get involved, without telling us how to, he showed us what we could do," one of the group's founding members, Samaara Malhotra, says.

With the company's headquarters located in Hong Kong, the factories in question based in China, and The Institute's report to guide them, VTech seemed like the perfect first fight to pick.

"We wanted to work on an issue that we knew something about," another of the group's founders, Kathy Lau, says. "But there are so many companies doing the same thing."

As with the launch of many groups, there were teething problems: the usual arguments over who would do what and what needed to be done. Now, DC Labour Rights is organised without hierarchy, with everyone's contributions considered equal in the eyes of the group. It's how they believe companies should be run, valuing each person's role.

Once the group was set up and ready to act, a petition was organised, denouncing VTech's alleged mistreatment of its workers, including illegal and excessive overtime and mental and physical abuse. The petition received an impressive 1,300 signatures. Armed with this and the report from The Institute, they sought a meeting with the CEO of VTech. Unfortunately, VTech stopped responding as soon as they heard the words "labour rights".

"We didn't even say we think what they do is wrong, we just wanted to ask them what they thought about the report, before pursuing the issue further, but they wouldn't reply," Kathy says.

Undeterred, the group tried to speak to the workers directly but, perhaps understandably, found it difficult to find people willing to talk.

With VTech management and staff closing ranks, DC Labour Rights was forced to look to other projects to maintain momentum. They decided to spread the word of what they were doing to other schools in Hong Kong, turning up with PowerPoint presentations to explain how they could set up their own campaigns. This led to the launch of Liberty Asia Students Against Slavery, a Hong Kong-based organisation, made up of professionals in relevant sectors, who support student activist groups.

But what can high school students actually achieve? As with most campaign groups, success can be difficult to measure, and much of the work they are doing has to remain under wraps.

In its three years, DC Labour Rights has started a website, created a mini documentary and undertaken extensive online research - and the work continues. Recently, member Francesca Philips gave a TEDx Talk to discuss human trafficking.

"Because of our age we can do things that adults can't," Samaara says. "We're not seen as a threat."

Members meet twice a week during their lunch hour, fitting in campaign work where they can. "It's not just work for us. We do take it seriously, but it's where we hang out, too," Kathy says. "We try to treat it as another subject, so we consider it just as important. But we have to put it on hold when we get a lot of other assignments."

The group, now including one male member, is working on a documentary on the horrors of sweatshops, and a report that will act as a comparison between the Declaration of Human Rights and China's trade union agreement. The group aims to finish the report by the end of this year.

"The agreement seems to do nothing for lower-level workers. Only half of these workers know it exists, but it's the only legal way," Kathy says.

In addition to the inspiration they get from Taylor, the girls say their family background has also contributed to their interest in human rights. Kathy's family took a keen interest in the Occupy movement, and she plans to study politics and economics at university to explore the subject of equality in greater depth.

For Samaara, her heritage has been a catalyst. Originally from India, she noticed the way women were unfairly treated there, and decided this was something she wanted to try to change.

"Within women's rights there are so many sub-issues, including child slavery. This is a subject we can be very passionate about because we are still children, so in a different life, it could have been us," says Samaara, who hopes to pursue a career in forensic psychology.

Soon the reins will be passed on to the next generation. The younger members will have big shoes to fill, but with the support of The Institute, a prized Twitter follower, and American linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky, a friend of Taylor's, it looks like misbehaving corporations everywhere should beware of DC Labour Rights.

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