The Stella shoe workers' protest represents a milestone, both for China Labour Bulletin and for China's labour movement as a whole. CLB first became involved in this case in late April 2004 after learning of mass protests that had taken place at two shoe factories in Dongguan, both owned by the Taiwanese firm Stella International. The first protest took place at the Xing Xiong Shoe Factory, and involved more than 4000 workers. The second occurred two days later at the Xing Ang Shoe Factory, and involved 1000 workers. The circumstances that incited the workers to rise up against management were the same at both factories: low wages, long working hours, and poor quality food. The spark that initially ignited the protests was Stella's practice of shifting workers' overtime hours from weekends to weekdays, resulting in substantially lower overtime rates being paid.
In the course of the first protest, machinery and other items belonging to the factory were damaged. The local government, seeing itself more as the guardian of foreign investors' rights than of workers' rights, immediately detained several dozen workers without conducting an investigation into the causes of the protest. Among the protesters detained as criminal suspects in the first wave of arrests were two 16-year-old workers (both of whom had been under-aged when hired.) An audit authorized by the Dongguan Police valued the damaged property at over 150,000 Yuan (approximately US $20,000). After the second factory erupted in protest, numerous additional arrests took place, including that of another 16-year old worker. Of those detained, altogether ten workers were later formally charged with "intentional destruction of property," a serious offense under the Chinese penal code. The remainder were dismissed from their jobs and given a range of "administrative punishments" including fines.
CLB's initial investigation found clear evidence to support the worker's claims that Stella had been involved in abusive employment practices. Employees in both factories worked six days a week, for up to eleven hours per day (excluding mealtimes). During peak production season, workers were made to work even longer hours, and their days off were cancelled. Low wages were also an issue. One worker told his defense lawyer that in March 2004 he had earned a monthly income of only 450 Yuan, of which 400 went towards rent and food. Furthermore, wages were often in arrears. Though these practices are serious violations of China's Labour Law, they failed to catch the attention of the Dongguan Municipal Government. Thus, lacking either government protection or an independent trade union with which to counter the abuses of their powerful employer, the workers' resentment reached critical mass.
Having decided to take on the case, CLB's first order of business was to provide the detained workers with legal assistance. This proved especially complicated, as the Criminal Procedure Law dictates that only suspects or family members are legally allowed to hire lawyers, and all of the detainees were migrant workers with families located in different provinces. After numerous inquiries, including to local police stations in the detainees' hometowns, CLB was able to obtain proper legal consent from the families of six of the ten detained Stella workers. CLB then contacted Gao Zhisheng, the highly regarded director of Beijing's Shengzhi Law Firm, to ask if he and his colleagues were willing to represent the six workers. Mr. Gao generously offered to handle the case free of charge; to provide him with a modicum of political cover for taking on such a sensitive case, however, CLB insisted that we pay the transportation and accommodation costs for himself and his partners. (Under Chinese criminal law, each defendant must have a separate lawyer, so six lawyers were required to handle the cases.)
Mr. Gao proved an especially skilled advocate for the workers. At the first trial (held on 25 August 2004,) he made a spirited defense speech to clarify what had driven the workers to such extremes. While acknowledging that some of the Xing Ang workers had damaged company property and that therefore the mass protest might have been considered an "inappropriate collective action," Mr. Gao nonetheless boldly argued in court that their mass protest action of 23 April "was the result of certain clear and pressing social causes." Using language probably never heard before in a criminal case involving workers in the People's Republic, Gao's testimony named these causes as "the fact that our society today permits and encourages the most naked forms of social injustice, together with an unrestrained level of gross and inhuman exploitation of the workers that has reached truly reactionary proportions." In addition, Gao conclusively demonstrated in court that the prosecution had presented no evidence linking any of the defendants to any specific criminal acts, violent or otherwise. Instead, he argued, the police had apparently plucked the ten defendants at random from among the several thousand protesting Stella workers and made them into scapegoats for the mass collective action.
Despite Lawyer Gao's powerful defense statement at this initial trial, and those of his lawyer colleagues at the subsequent Xing Xiong workers' trial, all ten defendants from both factories were found guilty. During the sentencing hearing some weeks later, the workers received prison sentences ranging from two to three and a half years, with suspended sentences being handed to the three underage workers. One irregularity in this proceeding was that the Dongguan Municipal People's Court failed to inform lawyers of the judgment immediately, as required by law. This delay was especially significant because the deadline for appealing a criminal case is ten days after the verdict. However, CLB learned of the sentencing from families of the defendants, and was able to inform the lawyers in time for them to launch their appeal. While this was taking place, various international organizations came out in support of the Stella workers. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) sent a letter to President Hu Jintao protesting the long sentences, and the Netherlands based Clean Clothes Campaign contacted Stella's buyers, urging them to write to both Stella's Management and the Dongguan courts to plead for leniency. Less than a week after the sentencing, Stella sent out a public letter, saying it was "saddened" by the sentences. This letter was signed by several of Stella's buyers, including major industry players such as Nike, New Balance, Sears, and Timberland. At CLB's direct request, the CEO of Reebok himself wrote to the Dongguan Court requesting leniency for the Stella Ten.
The Stella case was also reported on by the mainland news media. In a rare move, the national magazine China News Weekly (Zhongguo Xinwen Zhoukan) highlighted in an article published on 25 October 2004 Mr. Gao's argument in his defense statement for Chen Nanliu – one of the Xing Ang workers – that the prosecuting authorities had failed to prove that the workers' actions were in any way "planned or organized." It also quoted a labour expert in Guangdong as saying that "workers should be allowed to organize themselves and to have a legal channel to express their grievances" – a proposal that coincides with CLB's long-standing advocacy that Chinese workers should be allowed to established free and independent trade unions. Though for political reasons the magazine could not quote CLB, the journalist writing the article had contacted us, and his report closely reflected our viewpoint. CLB is very encouraged by the role played by the Chinese domestic media in reporting the Stella case, and believes that carrying out similar interviews with mainland media will be helpful in our future work.
In what can only be called a stunning verdict, following the appeals hearing on 31 December 2004, all ten defendants were released. Their original sentences of up to three-and-a-half years' imprisonment were reduced to nine-months, suspended for one year, and the three under-aged workers had their original suspended sentences dropped entirely. This reversal of the sentencing of the Stella International shoe factory workers – all of whom had been involved in mass protests – represents a significant landmark in the history of the modern labour movement in China. The reversal demonstrates that principled and well-written defense arguments by mainland Chinese lawyers, coupled with a bold and well-coordinated campaign by concerned labour groups and the international labour movement, can make a real difference to the fate of detained Chinese worker activists, even in a case involving major criminal charges.
Although this case is a milestone on the journey towards workers' rights in China, we should not forget that the appeal court still maintains that the ten Stella workers are guilty of their alleged offences. Instead of scapegoating individual workers in this way, the Chinese authorities should address the real issue of why labour unrest has become so widespread. Workers need to be able to establish their own independent trade unions, so that they can voice their grievances peacefully and negotiate with their employers on working conditions, wages, health and safety, and other issues of vital concern to workers around the country. China Labour Bulletin believes that this is the best and only way to ensure workers' rights and to reverse the rising tide of labour unrest and mass worker protests in China today.