Old Gold & Black: Chinese labor rights activist addresses conditions of workers

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

By Di Chung

10 April 2013

Look at the tag on the back of your shirt or in your shoes and chances are, you will most likely see the line, “Made in China.” Behind this simple acknowledgement occupies a realm of issues related to Chinese manufacturing and in particular, the rights of Chinese workers within industry.  Han Dongfang, a Chinese labor rights activist, addressed students and faculty on these issues  April 9 in the Z. Smith Reynolds Library.

Originally from the Shanxi province in China, Dongfang is most known for his work in establishing the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation who was actively involved in the historic protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After the protest, he was placed on the government’s most wanted list and was subsequently arrested. After serving a two year jail sentence, Dongfang moved to Hong Kong, where he currently resides. Presently, he hosts a radio show called Radio Free Asia and is the director of an organization called the China Labour Bulletin which fights for labor rights in China.

“China is the biggest world factory,”  Dongfang said. He pointed out the peculiarity of China’s specialization in industry and its communist government. “It’s a very strange system, but the system works. It’s a very unique system and lots of unexpected things happen.”

Dongfang then talked about his organization and radio program. Dongfang originally started a labor rights litigation program for workers where his organization hired lawyers to help workers claim compensation. Because they provide help for the workers, he expressed that it was difficult to raise the money to afford lawyers. However, he then realized that the issue labor rights should be pressed in a different manner. “Things should be done somewhere in the workplace and not in the courtroom,”  Dongfang said.

Dongfang highlighted collective bargaining as the best approach. “I personally have never pushed any strikes,” he said. “Each strike, I regarded as collective bargaining. Collective action. Similar demand. Just one thing missing- no bargaining table.”

“His approach was different, less forceful. I’m not sure how to describe it,”  sophomore Eileen McNamara said.

He also emphasized that his organization does not necessarily push workers, but rather allow workers to push themselves and to realize their own rights as workers: “Little by little, the awareness of rights through what we initiated with collective bargaining, workers were able to realize much more than salary, much more than bargaining.”

Dongfang concluded by suggesting that their work in encouraging workers to speak up has turn the issue into less of a taboo one. He said, “We have made the most politically sensitive subject into the least politically sensitive issue.”

After his talk, Dongfang entertained some questions posed by faculty from the Political Science, Sociology and History Departments that concerned the evolution of workers, problematic industries and the current state of Chinese labor organization.

Interestingly, though Dongfang is most known for his prominent role in a violent protest, he continues to emphasize a peaceful approach with regards to attaining rights for laborers in China. “We are troubleshooters, not trouble makers,” he said

Dongfang then fielded questions from students in the audience. Some issues raised were in regards to the state of Chinese laborers with foreign manufacturers leaving China, the role of nationalism, the safety of working for NGOs and fears of the young generation.

Some students found Dongfang’s perspective to be unique. Junior Grace Wang said, “It does get me thinking about labor issues, especially in the next decade. It’s pretty different from other lectures. I’ve attended other talks of the same issue and this is different from the talks from other scholars. I’ve heard about others talk about it, but it’s different.”

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