Working in a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) can be a gruelling experience anywhere in the world. SEZs are notorious for offering so-called investor-friendly environments to employers and capitalists while ensuring their employees are denied many of the rights that are fundamental to a dignified workplace. In such a pro-employer, anti-worker environment, the behaviour of some bosses can beggar belief, despite the existence of laws that are supposed to uphold workers rights.
Migrant workers at the Baoyang Industrial Corporation in the Shenzhen SEZ in south China were subject to illegal and humiliating body searches on July 30, 2001. Over 50 female employees at the South Korean owned wig-making factory have since decided to sue their ex-boss who ordered the searches after he suspected them of stealing human hair belonging to the factory.
An employee surnamed Tang said that five male and six female managers marched into the wig assembly workshop and ordered the workers to put their hands on their heads and stand to attention. Female managers then subjected the workers to prolonged searches that required workers to remove, unbutton and unzip articles of clothing. One worker, who could not hold her hands on her head for very long due to physiological reasons, was searched three times and accused of deceiving management.
Given the restrictions on protest and independent organising in China, the reaction of the workers was both swift and admirable. They marched down to the Kengzi township courthouse in the Longgang district of Shenzhen and staged a 24-hour sit in, demanding that both the owner and the managers involved in the searches be punished for violating the labour law. They also demanded compensation. Management responded by sacking them. This led to an investigation by the local labour bureau who suggested that the workers accept a management offer of one months pay for each year worked at the factory. Reports differ as to whether the workers accepted this solution and also if they would receive compensation for their ordeal. Court officials have refused to comment.
Although the South Korean manager has allegedly apologised for his misunderstanding of Chinas Labour Law, which forbids body searches, pressure on the Shenzhen government to intervene has grown. Media reports have condemned the boss and some reports say that the workers involved have pressed ahead with a lawsuit demanding Rmb 30,000 compensation. Even the government backed All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), notorious for its neglect of migrant workers, has taken a stand. Zhang Baoqin, chairwoman of the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions announced that [T]he government of the district of Longgang must look seriously into this case, and cannot sacrifice the honour and dignity of workers in exchange for economic development. The workers should be re-hired as it was a double insult that they had been fired after being violated. The Deputy Mayor of Shenzhen has promised that the South Korean manager who ordered the searches will be repatriated and that the Chinese managers who conducted the search would be sacked.
(HK: Oriental Daily 03/08/01, Singapore: Straits Times 06/08/01)