Factory workers sacked for demanding a representative trade union go to arbitration

A group of 35 workers from the Foshan Arts and Crafts factory (also known as Tongxin Jewellery) attended two separate arbitration hearings on 2 February claiming they had been illegally dismissed after engaging in collective bargaining and demanding that the enterprise trade union better represent the workers.

Foshan Arts and Crafts workers outside the arbitration hearing on 2 February.

The morning hearing focused on the main group of 32 workers. The company lawyer claimed that six workers were fired for absenteeism, while the other 26 had not actually been fired but were just not allowed to enter the factory because they did not comply with company rules banning mobile phones.

The dismissed workers were represented by the head of the Laowei Law Firm, Duan Yi, and his colleague Meng Fanqi who argued that the rules on mobile phones had never been implemented until last November when the workers started to question the legitimacy of the factory union. A few months earlier the workers own democratically-elected representatives had secured a collective bargaining agreement with the company while the union did nothing. Meng added:

The workers announced on 20 November that they would bypass the factory union and hold the first ever staff conference in the factory. They informed the city and provincial unions in person and invited them to attend and give advice. But on the 27th, the factory hired dozens of security guards to intimidate the workers and stopped them from holding the conference.

The factory then began to lockout workers, saying that people with phones can’t enter the factory, according to company rules, which had never taken effect. Moreover, the factory never consulted the workers or the factory union about these rules.

Duan Yi further pointed out that the 26 workers had been denied access to their workplace for almost two months and therefore, to all intents and purposes, they had been fired even if formal procedures had not been completed.

“As for the six who did receive a contract termination notice,” Duan said. “The evidence presented by the company shows that the factory union approved the dismissal but I have to ask you: Does the union exist? Who is the union chairman? Are the six workers union members? How can we confirm the authenticity of the union seal?”

The company lawyer could not immediately provide this information so Duan asked:

So your evidence is that the contract termination notices were acknowledged by an organisation that you know nothing about? I hereby ask the arbitration court to carry out further investigation on the existence and legitimacy of the factory union because my clients were fired for union activities which all higher level unions were informed of.

The afternoon hearing focused on the three workers, Zhu Xinhua, Zheng Hongshuang, and Qian Senhua, who had been at the heart of the workers’ long campaign for better pay and working conditions and a real trade union.

The three were fired on 25 November, two days before the staff conference, on the grounds of “improper activities, and refusing to work” The three workers responded that they had been unable to meet their production quotas because management had given them too little raw material to work with.

The company then presented a video taken on 27 November which purportedly showed the three workers “hiding on top of the building and orchestrating the whole event.” In response, Duan Yi asked why the company would make such accusations in the video if it claimed the dismissals had nothing to do with the workers’ activism.

The case continues. Summing up the day’s two hearings, Duan Yi said:

The arbitration hearing is just the first step of many; we are here for the long haul. It is probably the first time in history that a group of workers were fired for union activities and then demanded compensation in accordance with the Trade Union Law. I am very happy to see how Chinese workers have developed and matured over the years.

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