Guangdong’s workers mobilize to protect leaders from arrests and reprisals

As industrial unrest in China intensifies, worker activists in Guangdong are seeking more effective ways to counter management reprisals and arrests or detentions by the local police.

About one quarter of all cases of worker arrests this year have been in Guangdong. CLB’s Strike Map recorded 126 incidents in China as a whole the first nine months of this year, 29 of which occurred in Guangdong, more than twice the number in any other province.

In terms of police intervention in strikes and worker protests, there were 100 incidents in Guangdong in the first nine months of 2015, about 17 percent of the national total of 569.

Police intervention and arrests continued after the National Day Holiday break: Four workers were beaten and eight were detained on 9 October during a strike at a Taiwanese-owned electronics factory in Dongguan. See photograph below.

Auxiliary police detain a striking worker at Kinpo Electronics in Dongguan. Photograph from Weibo

The relatively harsh response of business owners and police in Guangdong reflects the economic downturn in the province’s manufacturing sector, as well as the well-established ability of factory workers in the province to organize.

There is a need however for workers to further improve their organizing ability and better protect their representatives. On 12 September a group of organizers, lawyers and scholars met in Guangzhou to discuss this pressing issue.

Veteran labour lawyer Duan Yi argued that the protection of worker representatives was now the key task for the workers’ movement in China. If worker representatives are not protected, he said, no one will be willing to stick their neck out and organize workers. However, he noted, there were now many methods and resources workers could use to better protect their representatives from reprisals.

Duan Yi, Director of the Laowei Law Firm addresses the 12 September meeting

Labour organizer Chen Huihai described some of the methods he had found effective such as workers moving en masse to the police station where their representatives were being detained and handing in petitions demanding their release. If workers leaders are detained for an extended period of time, Chen suggested setting up a solidarity fund to support them and their family and electing replacement representatives to carry on the struggle and support those in detention, Chen said.

Three of the meeting participants had themselves been fired or detained by the authorities while acting as worker representatives but they all had fought back and wrested compensation and concessions from their employer. A key element in their success, Duan Yi said, was that even though the law did not yet recognise them as workers’ representatives, crucially, they themselves did.

Currently, only enterprise trade union presidents and committee members are legally protected from management reprisals. However many workers are reluctant to get involved in the union because they feel it will not have sufficient power to stand up to management and will not get the support it needs from the local trade union federation.

While recognising the current limitations and failings of the trade union, Director of the Panyu Workers’ Centre Zeng Feiyang, argued that getting workers elected to the union was an important first step and still the most effective and sustainable way forward in the long-term.

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