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Chinese Labor Activists Get Shut Out, but Won’t Shut Up

Women in a pro-worker rally in Hong Kong, April, 2010. (Photo: istolethetv)

The media love to hail the “opening” of China: opening up to “Western culture,” opening up to digital communication and maybe even opening up to democracy. But for the most part, the focus is on keeping China open for business, and that sometimes means closing avenues for social progress and activism.

There have been reports of authorities in Guangdong harassing and pressuring non-governmental groups that advocate for workers and educate them about their labor rights. According to both mainland and Hong Kong-based activists, their efforts to empower workers have made them a political target.

Ironically, these conflicts seem to parallel the Guangdong government’s effort to liberalize regulations for NGOs, simplifying the credentialing process so that they can be certified through one, province-wide registration procedure. But the streamlining of registration, according to the Wall Street Journal, coincides with rising tensions between activists and the state:

[Activists] contend opponents in the government — they don’t know who — are making life miserable for them.

The Dagonzhe Center, a migrant-rights advocacy group in Shenzhen, said that it has been subject to escalating harassment that has resulted in the organization being kicked out of its offices. In April, the center says the landlord told the group to move out of its space. Later that month, he cut the water and electricity.

“He implied that he was pressured to do so by the local government,” said Chan Pinglan, an adviser to the center who works for the Hong Kong labor-rights group Worker Empowerment.

The police also reportedly disrupted a small Labor Day event held by the group in Shenzhen. The intimidation and pressure continued over the next several weeks until one day, the group found itself literally shut out of its offices, the WSJ reports: “the lock was sealed and the staff couldn’t get in. Security police watched the entrances.”

In an email interview, Patricia Tse, an activist with Worker Empowerment, a Hong Kong-based partner group of Dagongzhe, says:

Staff and workers of Dagongzhe petitioned to the municipal government in mid-June, but the government and trade unions refused to intervene in the landlord’s illegal actions and violation of the lease contract, and the landlord refused to disclose his source of pressure. We finally moved to a new place in July 2012, but the harassment from the local authorities continues.

Other worker aid groups have reported similar problems, such as getting their electricity cut off. Though it’s difficult to trace the exact source of these issues, they fit a long-standing pattern that suggests the powers that be hope to rein in pro-worker organizations. Moreover, in the context of the recent focus on officially registering approved NGOs with the authorities, Tse says, “we find the government’s attempt of opening up civil society [to be] a new way of social control, rather than accommodation.”

Amid general social and political hostility toward migrant labor, the state’s surveillance probably won’t relent any time soon.

Migrant workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation at work, and China’s government-sanctioned All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has failed to comprehensively address the social and legal marginalization of migrant workers in cities. Meanwhile, the Guangdong branch of the official union may see a rival in the upstart groups that are organizing and agitating independently. Critical labor activists dismiss the ACFTU as a business-friendly arm of the state, designed to contain worker unrest and cooperate with capital.

According to a research report by the Hong Kong-based advocacy group China Labour Bulletin, even as labor protests are exploding around the country, the collective bargaining process essentially amounts to a rubber stamp:

[D]espite the abundance of collective contracts, China is far from establishing a true collective bargaining system. The workers themselves are nearly always excluded from the collective contracts negotiation process. The contracts that are signed are essentially pro forma agreements imposed on the workforce by management and higher-level union officials concerned only with meeting their quota for collective contract completion. The provisions of the contracts hardly ever reflect the specific conditions and interests of workers at individual enterprises.

But in Guangdong, activist groups won’t be deterred from pursuing justice for marginalized workers. After being threatened with eviction, says Tse, workers rallied to petition the municipal government, and efforts to negotiate with officials for assistance continue. Adversity is proving their resilience, she says, because the conflict “has provided an opportunity for workers to fight for their political right. [As] Dagongzhe was established by workers and works for their own good, workers constantly show their support and solidarity to protect the centre and keep it running.”

These activists might get locked out once in a while, but they can’t be shut up.

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