Xianyang Textile Workers' Strike Ends as Police Detain More than 20 Activists, Wanted Notice for Three Others is Issued

1 November 2004

China Labour Bulletin has learned that more than twenty worker activists at the former Tianwang Textile Factory in Xianyang city, Shaanxi Province, have been detained by the police over the past two weeks in connection with a factory-wide strike by around 6,800 workers that lasted almost seven weeks. Around ten of the activists were detained prior to October 20, and the rest have been rounded up by police over the past few days. Neither the detainees’ names, nor the charges (if any) on which they are being held, are as yet known.

According to CLB sources, the Xianyang Public Security Bureau has also issued a “wanted notice” for three other workers from the same factory, ordering them to report to the police immediately in connection with alleged criminal offences. Since its takeover by the Hong Kong-based mainland Chinese conglomerate, China Resources (Huarun), the Tianwang factory has been renamed as the Xianyang Huarun Textile Factory.

At the same time as the police have been rounding up worker activists, the Xianyang Huarun management has reportedly agreed to two of the striking workers’ main demands. Under the combined impact of this official “carrot and stick” policy, the textile workers’ strike in Xianyang – believed to be unprecedented in China since the start of the country’s economic reforms, in terms both of its duration and of the determination and unity of the workforce – has finally been brought to an end.

It is believed that the on-going police crackdown was prompted partly by the local authorities’ determination to prevent the Xianyang Huarun workers from going ahead with their plan to elect a factory-level trade union and to register it with the officially-sanctioned trade union organization, the ACFTU, as allowed for under the PRC Trade Union Law of 2001. When the city authorities learned of this plan some weeks ago, they pre-emptively announced that the ACFTU itself had already taken steps to establish a union branch at the factory and that it had been approved by the relevant authorities. However, no workforce elections were called to legitimize this officially imposed body, and many of the workers at the factory remained committed to electing a genuine union branch of their own.

The Xianyang Huarun workers, most of them women, began their strike action on 14 September in protest at attempts by the factory’s new majority shareholder – China Resources (Holdings) Co. Ltd, a mainland-invested company listed in Hong Kong, New York and London – to force them to sign unfair labour contracts after the factory’s recent change of ownership. According to the workers, China Resources had demanded that all the workers accept a one-off severance payment equivalent to one month’s basic salary for each year of service in the factory, after which an unknown number of the workers would be re-employed on short-term contracts of one to three years’ duration. Those rehired would lose their previous work seniority status and be paid substantially lower wages than before. In addition, the new contracts specified that all those re-employed by the factory had to serve a six-month “probationary work period,” during which they would receive only 60 percent of their new salary. However, most of the workers have been employed at the factory for more than ten years, and hence – according to the PRC Labour Law – were entitled to receive permanent labour contracts. (For further information about the protest, see http://www.clb.org.hk/en/node/3796.)

According to CLB sources, in a move clearly aimed at ending the protracted strike action, China Resources last week made the following important concessions to the workforce: 1) the six-month “probationary work period” requirement had been dropped from the new employment contracts; and 2) the workers would be rehired on longer-term contracts than those originally offered. However, China Resources is still refusing to give the workers the compensation they are entitled to, under relevant government regulations, for their recent change of status from state-owned enterprise workers to employees of a privately owned enterprise.

On 20 October, despite a government-ordered news blackout on the Xianyang Huarun textile workers’ strike, members of a special task force from the Shaanxi provincial government appeared on a local television broadcast telling the striking workers to end their protest action and return to work. The same day, task force officials visited the factory gate, where workers had been maintaining a 200 person-strong, 24-hour vigil since around 17 September, and gave the protesting workers the same message. A few days earlier, several mainland Chinese journalists were briefly detained and had their films confiscated by the police for trying to report on the workers’ strike action, according to CLB sources. It is not known if any further punitive action has been taken against these reporters.

In addition, around forty workers are said to have been called in for questioning by the Xianyang police over the past two weeks in connection with the factory gate sit-in, with police enquiries focussed on trying to identify the workers who had organized the erection of blue plastic tents and other strike-related equipment and paraphernalia in front of the factory gates. Most of these workers were not subsequently detained, but some of them may be among the more than twenty Xianyang Huarun workers now being held by the police in connection with the almost seven week-long strike action.

“Government newspapers have been calling for several months now for foreign enterprises in China, including Wal-Mart and Kodak, to respect the workers’ legal right to establish trade union branches, and now the Xianyang authorities have detained more than 20 workers for trying to do precisely this,” said Han Dongfang, CLB’s director.

“The Xianyang Huarun workers’ strike action was peaceful from start to finish, and having their own union would have allowed the strike to be resolved in a calm and constructive manner,” Han added. “Instead, the local government has resorted to knee-jerk repressive tactics that slam the door on the central government’s policy of social dialogue.”

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