Diary of a Chinese worker activist. Women workers fight for justice in Guangzhou

15 October 2013

Last month, 19 striking workers at a jewellery factory in the Guangzhou suburb of Panyu were sacked without any compensation. Three of the workers were pregnant and two were nursing mothers. The workers are now engaged in a high profile campaign to get their jobs back.

Huang Xiaojuan is one of the sacked workers and a key figure in the long-running dispute at the Gaoya Jewellery Factory. In her personal account below, Huang describes the background to the dispute and details the actions taken by the workers in their collective quest for welfare benefits, better pay and improved working conditions at the factory.

She also highlights the role of a local labour rights group, the Panyu Workers’ Service Centre, during the workers’ year-long struggle. The jewellery workers core grievances were related to the company’s non-payment of social insurance contributions, an issue the Panyu Centre already had considerable experience and success with in 2012, helping other jewellery workers in the neighbourhood get their overdue payments.

Huang’s diary illustrates the workers’ awareness of their rights and their determination to seek a negotiated settlement with the company over a wide-range of grievances.  However, it also reveals the dangers that worker representatives, such as Huang, face if the boss decides to retaliate against them once they have achieved some measure of success in negotiations.

Gaoya workers take their protest to the Guangzhou Federation of Trade Unions

Mid-August 2012
After talking with the Panyu Workers’ Service Centre, we went to the boss and demanded that our social insurance payments be made for the first time. We then had two rounds of talks with the boss in the following week, but no agreement was reached.

End-August 2012
We reported the employer’s wrongdoings and petitioned the local Human Resources and Social Security Bureau, the Labour and Social Security Inspectorate and the trade unions.

August - September 2012
With the help of the Panyu Workers’ Service Centre, we also organized several workers meetings.

Early-September 2012
The staff at the Human Resources and Social Security Bureau got back to us and said they would investigate. In mid-September, they asked us to provide them with a detailed list of social insurance arrears. A week later, we paid our own social insurance contributions to the company.

November 2012
We discovered from the local tax authority that the company had finally paid their part of the social insurance contributions dating back to 2004.

August - November 2012
During these months, we also successfully resolved the following grievances through negotiation with management: 1.The signing of unlimited term contracts; 2. Issues related to the outsourcing of work from our workshop; 3. Better management of workloads and allocation of staff between workshops; 4. Severance packages for workers.

December 2012 - February 2013
With the help of the Panyu Workers’ Service Centre, we planned to hold additional negotiations with the employer to resolve several outstanding grievances, namely: Paid annual leave, free medical check-ups, a basic salary for workers who were on piece rate, establishing an annual wage increase mechanism, payment of the housing fund, etc. However, we had difficulties gaining and consolidating support from our fellow workers. In the beginning, as many as 93 co-workers agreed to demand the payment of social insurance contributions, but only 50 signed up and supported our plans to initiate talks with the employer after the Lunar New Year.

End-February 2013
We tried to bring the employer to the negotiation table. We also sought support from the local trade union to facilitate the talks.

Mid-March 2013
Formal talks failed to produce any substantial results. Resistance from the company increased and the worker representatives were put under a lot of pressure. Moreover, our lawyer resigned so as to avoid being labelled as an advocate for collective bargaining. We decided to change our tactics and become less high-profile. We sought private talks between worker representatives and the company. The change of tactics paid off somewhat as the boss agreed to answer most of our demands, except for those related to an annual wage increase mechanism and a basic salary for piece rate workers.

April - June 2013
There were 25 workers who had been employed at the company prior to the change in ownership in 2004. These workers wanted the current owner to pay the social insurance contributions that hadn’t been paid by its predecessor. We filed an arbitration request against our current employer at the local labour dispute arbitration committee in June.

July 2013
The company said that it would fire us four worker representatives because we helped those workers who had already left the company to get their social insurance payments, and also helped other departments in the company to stand up against the company. The boss used harsh language and said he would find ways to “take care” of us, and pay as little compensation as possible.

July – Early September 2013
My supervisor created a lot of problems for me, saying I had violated company regulations and that my work did not meet quality control standards.

11 September
My supervisor issued me with a warning because I answered a phone call just outside the workshop. After I complained about the warning to the human resources department, the supervisor took an even tougher stance the next day. My colleagues in the same workshop stood up for me, demanding an explanation from the supervisor as to why they were imposing excessive quality control standards. We were then asked by another supervisor to stop working, and so we did.

12 September 2013
At 15:00, the HR manager came to the workshop and asked us to get back to work and put our demands in writing. At 17:30, the boss came to our workshop in a really bad mood and demanded that we get back to work. We responded that the company should resolve our grievances first. The company also called the staff from the local labour bureau to come and ask us to get back to work.

13 September 2013
In the morning, the HR manager again came to ask us to get back to work. We refused because the company still hadn’t resolved the issue at hand. At 15:00 we got our first warning letter from the company.

16 September 2013
In the morning, the HR manager asked us again to get back to work. At 14:30, we got a second warning letter. At 15:00, staff from the labour bureau came and we said we should get back to work if the company resolves the issue and stops abusing quality control standards. We submitted a written list of grievances with the staff of the labour bureau as witnesses. However, the company threw the list back at us after the staff from the labour bureau left.

18 September 2013
At 09:00, we got our third and final warning. In all, 19 of the striking workers were fired without any compensation. At 14:30, we went to the Labour and Social Security Inspectorate to file a complaint and demand that they intervene and mediate.

24 September 2013
We filed complaints at the Guangzhou Federation of Trade Unions, the municipal government of Guangzhou, and the Women’s Federation of Guangdong. However, the trade union failed to provide any help, neither did the Women’s Federation. The government asked us to go through the labour dispute arbitration system.

26 September 2013
At midday, we staged a protest outside the factory and hung banners at the company gate with the slogan “illegal dismissal, reinstatement now!” The police arrived after 15 minutes and took us inside the factory. They asked the company to resolve the dispute. We agreed to go the labour bureau to mediate, but failed to reach any agreement. The company refused to reinstate us or pay any compensation. The labour bureau asked us to go through the labour dispute arbitration system, which could take a long time, and some of us can’t afford that. Three of us are pregnant and  two are still breast-feeding.

27 September 2013
We were interviewed by Guangdong Television in the morning, and continued our protest at the company gate from midday onwards.

9 October 2013
The Labour Bureau invited us to talks with the local trade union, Women’s Federation, Labour and Social Security Inspectorate, police and chengguan. The Labour and Social Security Inspectorate said they had done everything they could and asked us to go through the labour dispute arbitration system. The trade union said it would initiate talks with the employer over compensation. We are still waiting for its detailed plans.

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