China’s com­mu­nists threat­ened by the strik­ing work­ing classes

The China Post - - GUIDE POST - BY DIDI TANG

Timid by na­ture, Shi Jiey­ing took a risk last month and joined fel­low work­ers in a strike at her hand­bag fac­tory, one of a surg­ing num­ber of such la­bor protests across China.

Riot po­lice flooded into the fac­tory com­pound, broke up the strike and hauled away dozens of work­ers. Ter­ri­fied by the vi­o­lence, Shi was hos­pi­tal­ized with heart trou­ble, but with a fee­ble voice from her sickbed ex­pressed a new­found bold­ness.

More than three decades af­ter Bei­jing be­gan al­low­ing mar­ket re­forms, China’s 168 mil­lion mi­grant work­ers are dis­cov­er­ing their la­bor rights through the spread of so­cial me­dia. They are on the fore­front of a la­bor protest move­ment that is pos­ing a grow­ing and awk­ward prob­lem for the rul­ing Com­mu­nist Party, wary of any grass­roots ac­tivism that can threaten its grip on power.

“The party has to think twice be­fore it sup­presses the la­bor move­ment be­cause it still claims to be a party for the work­ing class,” said Wang Jiang­song, a Bei­jing­based la­bor scholar.

Feel­ing ex­ploited by busi­nesses and aban­doned by the gov­ern­ment, work­ers are or­ga­niz­ing strikes and la­bor protests at a rate that has dou­bled each of the past four years to more than 1,300 last year, up from just 185 in 2011, said Hong Kong-based China La­bor Bul­letin, which gath­ers in­for- ma­tion from China’s so­cial me­dia.

China’s la­bor law, which went into ef­fect in 1995, stip­u­lates the right to a de­cent wage, rest pe­ri­ods, no ex­ces­sive over­time and the right of group ne­go­ti­a­tion.

Work­ers are al­lowed to strike, but only un­der the gov­ern­ment­con­trolled All China Fed­er­a­tion of Trade Unions — which crit­ics say is es­sen­tially an arm of the gov­ern­ment that has failed to stand up for work­ers.

Work­ers who or­ga­nize on their own can be ar­rested, not for strik­ing but on charges such as dis­rupt­ing traf­fic, busi­ness or so­cial or­der. In Shen­zhen, worker rep­re­sen­ta­tive Wu Gui­jun was charged with gath­er­ing crowds to dis­rupt traf­fic, but was re­leased with no con­vic­tion af­ter a year in detention.

Mi­grant fac­tory work­ers are per­haps the vanguard of this move­ment, but la­bor ac­tivism is slowly spread­ing among a work­ing class that, all told, forms more than half of China’s 1.4 bil­lion.

While many la­bor ac­tivists have been ha­rassed and de­tained, few have been con­victed. In the only known case of work­ers in­volved in or­ga­nized ac­tions be­ing crim­i­nally pun­ished in re­cent years, Meng Han and 11 other se­cu­rity guards at a state hos­pi­tal in Guangzhou were con­victed in April 2014 of gath­er­ing crowds to dis­rupt so­cial or­der af­ter they staged a strike to de­mand equal pay and equal so­cial se­cu­rity for lo­cal and out-oftown work­ers.

In the Pearl River Delta town of Nanlang, the hand­bag fac­tory where Shi worked is one of many lining the main drag that leads to a group of parks hon­or­ing the town’s most fa­mous son, Sun Yat­sen, and the 1911 revo­lu­tion he led to build a repub­lic in China.

Ear­lier this year, the 280 or so work­ers, mostly women, went on strike to de­mand a still-un­paid but promised bonus of about US$150 for last year. They ended the strike when fac­tory man­age­ment shelled out the money.

But in early March, the bosses an­nounced fewer over­time hours and fewer work­days due to the global eco­nomic slump, and yanked a US$5 bonus given to ev­ery fe­male worker on March 8, In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day.

The work­ers went on strike again, de­mand­ing back pay­ments into so­cial se­cu­rity funds, hous­ing al­lowances and — be­liev­ing the fac­tory was on its last legs — the right to a sev­er­ance pack­age if they quit.

This time, the man­age­ment did not budge.

In­side the town’s gov­ern­ment build­ing, a Ja­panese man who iden­ti­fied him­self as the fac­tory’s for­mer gen­eral manager but de­clined to give his name said through an in­ter­preter that the com­pany had no choice but to cut hours when it failed to re­ceive enough or­ders. He said work­ers kept mak­ing new de­mands, and that the fac­tory had to call in po­lice af­ter sur­veil­lance cam­eras showed work­ers en­gaged in sab­o­tage.

A Nanlang gov­ern­ment state­ment said it dis­patched a team March 24 to per­suade the work­ers to re­turn to work, but that some of them were flat­ten­ing tires, destroying a sur­veil­lance cam­era, dis­play­ing ban­ners and pre­vent­ing other work­ers from re­turn­ing to the work­place. Four work­ers were de­tained.

Work­ers said they were hold­ing a peace­ful rally when po­lice at­tacked them.

AP

In this March 26 photo, work­ers gather at one end of a floor as they strike at the Cui­heng Hand­bag Fac­tory in Nanlang town­ship, Zhong­shan City in south­ern China’s Guang­dong prov­ince.

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