Two months after a dozen police broke into her apartment and dragged her away in front of her one-year-old daughter and teenage son, labour activist Zhu Xiaomei returned home on the evening of 1 February.
“Thank God my dear wife has finally been released!” her husband Wu Rongpu wrote on WeChat late Monday evening. His short statement was soon flooded with congratulatory messages from friends and other labour activists such as Luo Hongmei who runs a nearby labour group devoted to helping women workers.
Wu assured everyone that they were both well but tired and that they were heading back to his home town for the Spring Festival.
Zhu, along with her colleagues from the Panyu Workers Centre, Zeng Feiyang and Meng Han, had been charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” and held at the Guangzhou No.1 Detention Centre since 3 December 2015. Zeng and Meng remain in detention as does another activist, He Xiaobo from the Nanfeiyan Social Work Service Centre, who is being held in nearby Foshan and is charged with “misappropriation of funds.”
Zhu had been working at the Panyu Centre since 2014, after she was fired by her former employer Hitachi Metals in Guangzhou for organizing workers and lobbying for the establishment of a trade union at the factory. Since joining the Panyu Centre, Zhu has been involved in several collective bargaining cases such as the Guangzhou University Town sanitation workers dispute and Lide shoe factory dispute. In both these cases, the workers successfully negotiated with management and obtained nearly everything they were asking for.
Many of the workers were impressed and inspired by Zhu’s courage and quiet determination to stand up to boss and demand that management engages in collective bargaining with workers’ representatives. As she told the University Town sanitation workers: “At first you might be a little afraid, and think it is better to have other representatives to go and talk, but as some of you have already discovered today, management can’t actually do anything to you.” See video below.
Zhu Xiaomei in action during the Guangzhou University Town sanitation workers dispute
Zhu was born in the central province of Henan, a region famous for the legendary woman warrior, Mu Guiying. She moved to Guangzhou in 1990s to look for work and ended up at the Hitachi Metals Factory in 1998. She worked there for 16 years during which time she met her husband, got married and gave birth to her first child. She never really thought about workers’ rights or labour activism until a colleague was injured at work and asked her for help.
In an interview last year, Zhu explained that when she first heard about the Panyu Workers Centre she was a little suspicious, fearing it might have been be some kind of scam operation. But after she met and got to know Zeng Feiyang and the other staff members, she gradually established trust and eventually became a labour activist herself.
During her time as a staff member of the Panyu Centre, Zhu worked closely with and developed a tremendous sympathy for low-paid workers who had been denied their most basic rights. With tears welling in her eyes, Zhu explained that: “All they want is just to get by… why can’t our society meet such basic requirements? We workers are not petty and low.”
Zhu always made a point of telling workers “not to be afraid” when they confront factory management, police or government officials. It is important for workers to understand that they are not inferior to others, she said.
As workers, we were too isolated before, it was difficult to access information and our thinking ossified as a result. Somehow we’d end up believing that we were supposed to be oppressed in this way. I don’t think things should be like this. If you ask me what I think, I’d say we as workers should have dignity and be respected just like anyone else.
Through her own struggles and those of other workers, Zhu said she came to understand that it was only through collective action that workers could get the dignity and respect they deserved. “Collective bargaining has always been the most useful tool,” she said.