Financial Times: Cramped courtroom hints at power of China’s labour movement

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

February 24 2014

Tom Mitchell in Beijing

On the afternoon of February 17, Wu Guijun’s supporters erupted in anger when told his trial’s opening session had been cancelled. They harangued the judge, who had informed Mr Wu’s lawyers that the prosecutor was unavailable. Dozens more marched to the court’s administrative office to demand that Mr Wu, accused of leading a labour protest that allegedly “disturbed public order”, be allowed his day in court.

Mr Wu’s family members and co-workers, backed by dozens of Chinese labour activists, had been waiting more than three hours for the trial to start at the Bao’an District People’s Court in Shenzhen, the manufacturing centre bordering Hong Kong. Few of them had ever heard William Gladstone’s famous maxim that “justice delayed is justice denied”, but instinctively they knew the truth of it.

The mini-revolt was successful. The judge quickly put Mr Wu’s case back on the docket, tracked down the prosecutor and moved the hearing to a bigger courtroom that could accommodate the large turnout. It was a small victory, but also one that illustrated the dynamism and boldness of a sophisticated network of labour activists that is outpacing the government-sanctioned All China Federation of Trade Unions.

A bloated bureaucracy with more than 900,000 officials, the ACFTU either shies away from industrial actions or is missing entirely in situations where China’s workers desperately need union guidance. While the ACFTU has been aggressive in establishing chapters at large foreign multinationals, from which it collects lucrative payroll fees, it is often nowhere to be seen at smaller factories such as Mr Wu’s.

Mr Wu’s factory boss wanted to move to a cheaper location away from the coast. According to the factory’s workers, their boss’s refusal to offer adequate and legally mandated compensation led to the protest last year at which Mr Wu was arrested. In marching to a local government office for assistance, Mr Wu and his co-workers allegedly disrupted traffic. Mr Wu denies the charges.

“The ACFTU doesn’t play any useful role and workers often don’t know how to manage these types of industrial disputes,” says Zeng Feiyang of the Guangdong Panyu Migrant Workers Center, one of China’s most experienced labour non governmental organisations. “It’s a very big problem.”

In addition to being more nimble than the ACFTU, whose officials routinely refuse interview requests, China’s new generation of labour activists is extremely focused and pragmatic. Unlike Xu Zhiyong, the legal scholar and “constitutionalist” recently sentenced to a four-year prison term, workers such as Mr Wu fight for their rights one factory at a time and are careful not to confront the Chinese Communist party or government directly.

Such lessons are the fruit of long and bitter experience. Worker protests have been common in China’s industrial heartlands, most notably the Pearl River Delta in southern Guangdong province, ever since the country emerged as an export juggernaut in the late-1990s. More recently, however, two events transformed worker activism.

The first was the global financial crisis, which depressed demand for Chinese factories’ exports just as their manufacturing costs were beginning to rise rapidly. Mr Wu’s factory was one such casualty. As China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based worker rights group, noted in a report last week: “Many worker protests were ignited by the closure, merger or relocation of factories in Guangdong as the global economic slowdown adversely affected China’s manufacturing industries.”

The second event was a series of strikes at Japanese-invested car factories in Guangdong in 2010, which led to large salary increases at the affected plants. The strikes also convincingly demonstrated that Chinese workers were capable of organising themselves in the absence of ACFTU support.

Despite such victories, Chinese labour activists are nonetheless cautious in their hopes for Mr Wu, whose trial continues this week. “It’s hard to expect that they will drop the charge or say he is innocent,” one of Mr Wu’s supporters told the Financial Times, noting the government’s increasing intolerance for strikes that allegedly disturb public order. “But if he is sentenced to only nine or 10 months in prison, that would be a good result.”

Taking into consideration time already served since his detention last May, Mr Wu would then be eligible for release immediately. In that event, the Bao’an District People’s Court would erupt again, but this time in joy not outrage.

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