Tuesday 31 May 2016
Chinese campaigners have called on Beijing to free five prominent labour activists after police launched an “unprecedented” crackdown designed to neuter their movement at a time of growing worker unrest.
At least 18 Guangdong-based campaigners have been detained or interrogated since last Thursday when police began their roundup in China’s factory heartlands.
Those who remain in custody include Zeng Feiyang, director of the Panyu Workers’ Centre in the provincial capital Guangzhou; He Xiaobo, who runs a support group for injured workers in the nearby city of Foshan; and Zhu Xiaomei, a female activist from the same organisation who is also the mother of a one-year-old baby.
Also being held are Deng Xiaoming, from the Haige Workers’ Services Centre, and Peng Jiayong, who runs the Panyu Labourer Mutual Aid Group. Chen Huihai, a sixth activist, is understood to be under house arrest.
William Nee, a Hong Kong-based activist for Amnesty International, said “a coordinated attack” on Guangdong’s labour movement was under way.
In the July crackdown, dozens of lawyers and activists were detained and interrogated by police in more than 24 Chinese cities and provinces, according to the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, a Hong Kong-based monitor.
According to the group, 23 people have been formally arrested since then, with another 12 released on bail. Those arrested include Li Heping, Xie Yanyi and Wang Quanzhang.
In December, in what looks like a co-ordinated operation, police here rounded up more than a dozen workers rights activists.
Among them was He Xiaobo, known for his work at a local advice centre for migrant workers.
He has now been held for almost three months, during which time neither his family, nor his lawyer, has been able to contact him.
His wife - Yang Min - is very worried about him, and had been very keen to speak to us about his case, but on the day we were due to meet her, she sent an oddly worded message, very different in style from her previous messages, apologising and indicating that she could no longer do the interview.
Zeng Feiyang, Meng Han and He Xiaobo, the three activists were detained on 3 December along with more than a dozen others in a coordinated crackdown on civil society labour groups in the Guangzhou region. Other activists including Zhu Xiaomei, Peng Jiayong and Deng Xiaoming were subsequently released but are currently unable to continue their work helping workers organize and to engage in collective bargaining with their employer.
Staff at the Panyu Centre and other labour groups in the region played a vital role in ensuring workers could resolve their disputes with management satisfactorily and thereby reduce labour tensions in Guangdong. Since their detention, labour disputes have continued to erupt and, as one workers’ leader who had been helped by staff at the Panyu Centre noted, without the moderating influence of the labour groups, frustrated workers may resort to more extreme measures in pursuing their demands.
In the last few days alone, around 3,000 workers at a home appliance factory in Shenzhen went out strike to demand layoff compensation, about 2,000 workers at a Delphi factory in Guangzhou went on strike over relocation plans (several were beaten or arrested by police), and 300 workers at an electronics plant in Dongguan staged a protest, again demanding relocation compensation.
It is clear that the Guangdong authorities are unable to cope with the rising tide of labour unrest in the province: Their only response so far has been to threaten and intimidate workers and detain the labour activists and labour relations experts who could actually help.
For nearly seven years, Li Wei rose before dawn seven days a week for his 10-hour shift at the steel plant, returning home each night soaked in sweat, the clank of heavy machinery still ringing in his ears. But last month, the 31-year-old welder stood outside the plant with hundreds of co-workers, picketing against pay cuts and singing patriotic battle hymns.
Within a week, the authorities declared their strike illegal, threatening fines and imprisonment. The police descended on the plant by the hundreds, tearing down signs and ordering the protesters to go back to work. “I’ve sacrificed my life for this company,” Mr. Li told officers as they sought to disperse the workers. “How can you do this?”
As China’s economy slows after more than two decades of breakneck growth, strikes and labor protests have erupted across the country. Factories, mines and other businesses are withholding wages and benefits, laying off staff or shutting down altogether. Worried about their prospects in a gloomy job market, workers are fighting back with unusual ferocity. Last week, hundreds if not thousands of angry employees of the state-owned Longmay Mining Group, the biggest coal company in northeastern China, staged one of the most politically daring protests over unpaid salaries yet, denouncing the provincial governor as he and other senior leaders gathered for an annual meeting in Beijing.
China Labor Bulletin, a labor rights group based in Hong Kong, recorded more than 2,700 strikes and protests last year, more than double the number in 2014. The strife appears to have intensified in recent months, with more than 500 protests in January alone.
He Xiaobo, a 42-year-old former migrant worker, was known for campaigning on behalf of workers who had been injured or maimed while working in the manufacturing heartlands of Guangdong province.
Until his detention he had run a group called the Nanfeiyan Social Work Service Centre in the southern city of Foshan, where he lived with his wife, Yang Min, and baby daughter.
On 3 December, he was taken into custody during what activists called an unprecedented government attack on China’s labour movement.
On Friday, the activist announced his conditional release by way of a brief audio message posted online by the advocacy group China Labour Bulletin. “Hello everyone. This is He Xiaobo. I have just arrived home. Thanks to you all for paying attention to me. Thanks for your help. I hope one day we can all meet so I can thank you all in person,” he said. Yang, who has been living under police surveillance since her husband was taken, confirmed his release but declined to discuss the situation further.
He’s lawyer, Shang Manqing, said it was not clear what would happen to his client after his release but said he had instructed the activist to keep a low profile. He is facing accusations of embezzlement, charges supporters believe were concocted by authorities in order to silence the activist. Campaigners believe the police clampdown against labour activists such as He is designed to crush workers’ dissent at a time of growing unrest caused in part by the slowing economy.
“Domestically, problems and risks that have been building up over the years are becoming more evident,” the prime minister, Li Keqiang, admitted last month in an address to China’s parliament. In recent years, many factories in Guangdong have closed because of the downturn or moved their operations into south and south-east Asia, where costs are lower. China Labour Bulletin, which tracks worker unrest, reported a dramatic rise in protests and strikes in late 2015 as a result of the slump.
Labour organisations in Guangdong Province encountered a large-scale crackdown between the 3rd and 5th December 2015. At least 25 employees and volunteers from four labour organiszations were detained and questioned by the police and seven of them were put into prolonged custody or forced to “disappear”. Zeng Feiyang, director of Panyu Migrant Workers Centre, and his colleague Meng Han continue to be detained.