The making of a labour activist

14 November 2013

During his 18 years working in the moulding industry in Guangdong, Guan Dongwei never really thought of himself as labour activist. “I used to care little about things other than my income and the welfare of my family,” he said.

But when the factory he was employed at, Liansheng Moulding, started cutting wages and benefits, it was Guan and a handful of other senior workers who were thrust into the limelight. “Now every one of the striking workers is my family. No has to go up against the boss alone anymore. I am representing and protecting them.”

This 39-year-old veteran with rough hands and a scarred face put his transformation into an activist down to the solidarity of his co-workers, their determination to stand up for their rights, and the strategic help and support they received from a local labour rights group, the Panyu Workers’ Service Centre.

Guan said it was the collective bargaining training he received at the Panyu Centre that fostered the sense of responsibility he felt towards the nearly one hundred striking workers at Liansheng:

We were angry at our reduced wages and the boss’s discrimination, but we didn’t know what to do and how to do it. If it weren’t for the Centre I think we would have fallen into the trap of going through the labour dispute arbitration system.

The arbitration system is designed to give workers an avenue for legal redress but, all too often, its excessive bureaucracy means it becomes a safe haven for companies to evade their responsibilities.

Instead of arbitration, the centre suggested that Guan and other representatives put as much pressure on the company as possible through demonstrations inside the factory and petitioning the local government outside the factory. But crucially, they tried not to push so hard that the police would get involved and workers risked getting arrested.

These tactics proved to be effective. The company signed an unprecedented collective agreement with the representatives, guaranteeing the workers a severance package for the first time in the company’s 20-year history.

Moreover, after nearly four months of close cooperation, Guan and his colleagues have now become good friends with staff from the Panyu Centre such as program officer Chen Huihai. As Chen said:

We are like brothers now. But this mutual trust didn’t develop in just one day. We often spent more than ten hours a day together over the past four months, discussing tactics and sharing experiences. There was one time when several workers were taken to the local police station, and the representatives and I talked over the phone until four in the morning in order to come up with a plan to get them out. Luckily, they all managed to go home that night.

The Liansheng dispute shows that individual and isolated workers stand only a slim chance against management: Workers need leaders, they need representatives and they need a united voice. In addition, the dispute shows that workers and their representatives can benefit from getting professional advice and working with labour rights groups who have dedicated staff and hands-on experience in dealing with confrontations between workers and management. Finally, the dispute shows that skilled and experienced workers like Guan, who will always been in demand by employers, are in better position to stand up and fight for their co-workers than perhaps younger unskilled workers who might be worried about losing their job.

I think Guan and his co-worker’s success can inspire other workers to take a collective stand and, by working with labour rights groups in their neighbourhood, nurture even more labour activists in the future.

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