Getting sacked was just the beginning for Zhu Xiaomei. For close to two years now, Zhu has used her own struggle and experience in standing up to her former employer to help drive China’s workers’ movement forward and emerge as one of most dynamic labour activists in the Pearl River Delta today.
Zhu was fired from her job at the Hitachi Metals factory in Guangzhou in January 2014 after she campaigned for the establishment of an enterprise trade union. But she refused to go quietly or meekly accept her fate and retreat to her hometown in Henan; instead she took the company to arbitration court in Guangzhou.
The labour dispute arbitration committee initially ruled against her in April 2014 but Zhu kept fighting and appealed the decision. Eventually, the district civil court ruled in her favour and Hitachi Metals agreed to an out-of-court settlement in which Zhu would get 230,000 yuan as compensation for illegal dismissal.
Signing the settlement deal was an emotional moment, Zhu said:
It was never about the 230,000 yuan; it is about respect. It is about the respect employers in China have failed to show for so long. It is about the respect that I, and every worker who stands up for their rights, deserve.
I smiled at the managing director on my way out. He once yelled at me ‘if you hire a lawyer, we will hire ten!’ Well, in the end, he hired two but he was the one left siting on the bench with a grumpy look on his face having just lost the case.
Not long after losing her job at Hitachi Metals, Zhu was hired by the nearby Panyu Workers' Service Centre, a non-governmental labour organisation that promotes collective bargaining and worker participation in enterprise trade union elections.
Working as a labour organizer and collective bargaining consultant, Zhu spent countless hours with workers and their representatives and played an essential role in many labour disputes, involving thousands of workers. For Zhu, there were three groups of workers in particular that stood out: The cleaners at a military hospital in Guangzhou who held democratic union elections and voted for their union president, the sanitation workers in Guangzhou University Town who elected representatives and twice bargained with management (see video below), and the workers at Lide shoe factory who elected a new group of bargaining representatives when the old representatives failed to keep pushing the workers’ agenda forward.
Zhu Xiaomei in action during the Guangzhou University Town sanitation workers dispute
These struggles, Zhu said, demonstrated how far the workers’ movement in China has developed and progressed in just a few short years:
Since the time when I first started at Hitachi Metals as a teenager, I have witnessed first-hand how workers’ activism has grown. Back then, most workers were from rural areas and we felt content just to earn more than our cotemporaries down on the farm. When our rights were violated, we didn’t know what to do or who to turn to.
But today we see the new generation of workers staging strikes, bargaining with management, and demanding trade union elections. On top of that, they are organising and spreading news on their smartphones all the time!
One of Zhu’s key roles at the Panyu Workers Centre is training the worker activists who emerged from the labour disputes the centre handled, and helping to turn them into the trade union leaders of tomorrow. She explained:
China’s workers are learning from the history of the trade union movement both at home and abroad. It is only a matter of time before we become part of the history of labour movement ourselves.
I once told a representative of the Guangzhou sanitation workers who felt she was not educated enough and was not confident enough to join the trade union leaders’ trainings: ‘Arm yourself, so you can arm the others.’
Chinese workers have huge potential. Many are still unorganised but once we are given the right tools, such as collective bargaining and workplace union elections, we will bounce back with amazing force.
Zhu Xiaomei is just one of a growing number of labour activists based in Guangdong who have come to the fore in recent years. Like Zhu, many played a leading role in labour disputes at their own workplace before being sacked or even arrested in retaliatory attacks by management and the local authorities.
- Meng Han spent nine months in jail after leading a protest by hospital security guards in Guangzhou. He now works with Zhu at the Panyu Centre.
- Yu Wucang was sacked after lobbying for a better deal for his fellow street cleaners in Guangzhou. Not only did he get his own job back, he has been instrumental in organizing other sanitation workers in the city.
- Wu Guijun was detained for one year by the authorities in Shenzhen after representing his co-workers at a furniture factory in their dispute with management. He was released when all charges were dropped in June last year and has been active in helping other workers in Shenzhen ever since.