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China Labour Action Express No. 26 (2003-04-30)
1 May 2003
Repression of Labour Activists
As the world celebrates the struggles and achievements of the trade union movement on May Day, workers in China have little to celebrate and little to show for their alleged place as the “masters of the country”. Throughout China, workers are being denied their basic human rights to freedom of expression and association as well as their right to a safe working environment.
The growing labour unrest taking place throughout China comes as a result of forced layoffs, missing wages and other benefits, official corruption and mismanagement. Denied of the right to form independent trade unions and deprived of any real voice in industry, Chinese workers are taking to the streets in an effort to highlight their plight.
“The voices of Chinese workers are being raised throughout China but are being met with silence and suppression. Unless the Chinese authorities listen to their demands and redress the injustices facing workers, the voices can only grow louder in their demands for an end to corruption, unsafe working conditions and repression”, said Han Dongfang, CLB’s Director.
The Chinese authorities have consistently shown contempt towards workers who attempt to stand up for their legitimate rights. Although the Chinese Government has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), it placed a reservation on its obligations towards Article 8 of the Covenant, which guarantees trade union rights, in particular Article 8.1a on the right to freedom of association.
Legitimate protests are branded as “illegal demonstrations”. Many ordinary workers are detained after peaceful protests, interrogated, and sometimes beaten before release. The families of those vocal in protests are harassed and subject to constant police surveillance. Worker activists and ordinary workers taking part in demonstrations are detained and often sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for their involvement in protests.
Since January 2003, retired workers have been protesting against proposed cuts to their pension subsidies at the Suizhou Tieshu Textile Group. Four workers were detained on 23 April; two of them have since been released but Gong Qingshan, a 72 year old retiree and Cui Dezhi, a 52 year old retiree both remain in detention. A further two people were detained on 28 April, after some 600 workers marched to the Suizhou City Government offices in protest at the detentions and to ask again for an answer to their demands. CLB urges the Chinese authorities to immediately release all four workers who were detained solely for their involvement in peaceful and legitimate demonstrations.
Many worker activists are charged with “subverting state power” through their activities of “organizing illegal demonstrations”. These include Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang, both detained after mass protests in Liaoyang in March 2002. One year after the demonstrations last spring which saw up to 30,000 protestors calling for their release, they remain in detention awaiting a verdict after a trial on charges including subversion. The Chinese authorities have also contended that the two men were also guilty of committing “acts of terrorism and sabotage”; a claim refuted by local Liaoyang officials and the International Labour Organization. CLB believes that Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang are clearly guilty of no “crime” other than that of peacefully seeking to protect the legitimate rights of the Liaoyang workers.
Others remain imprisoned simply for supporting workers protests or attempting to publicize events. Zhang Shanguang, a teacher and labour rights activist, was sentenced to a ten year term of imprisonment on charges of “endangering state security” after he released to the media news of demonstrations in Hunan.
Others who try to form unions or informal groups to protect the rights and interest of their co-workers find themselves the particular subject of harsh intimidation and repression. Unofficial unions are quickly suppressed and the leaders imprisoned. In early March 2002, workers at the Daqing Petroleum Administration Bureau attempted to set up the “Standing Committee of the ‘Retrenched Workers Provisional Trade Union’ to help them in their protests against cut benefits and layoffs. The group folded after the organizers were detained one by one.
Shortly after Di Tiangui, a retired work from Shanxi, issued a statement calling for the establishment of the “Retired Workers Association” in May 2002 to protect the rights of retired workers, he was arrested and charged with subversion and the setting up of an “illegal organization”. An ailing and aged Di Tiangui remains in detention, almost 12 months after his arrest and is still awaiting trial.
China Labour Bulletin urges the Chinese authorities to allow workers the fundamental right to freedom of association and expression, including the right to form independent trade unions and calls for the immediate release of all those detained for the peaceful expression of their right to freedom of association.
Han Dongfang, CLB's Director today stated: “With the continuing economic changes in China and the subsequent layoffs, unemployment, and corruption, there will be no end to labour unrest unless the Chinese Government takes urgent action to remedy its causes.” He added: “The only solution is for the Chinese government to recognize the legitimate right of workers to protest.”
Health and Safety
May Day has its origins in the fight for an eight hour day in the 1900’s. Over 100 years later, Chinese workers are still fighting for that right. Although Chinese Labour Law guarantees workers the right to “a working hour system wherein laborers shall work for no more than eight hours a day…” in thousands of factories, mines and other enterprises, workers are still condemned to working ten or 12 hours a day, often with forced and unpaid overtime and often in appalling conditions.
Millions of workers continue to work in unsafe conditions as the drive for profits and corrupt management strips workplaces of even the most basic health and safety standards. In the first three months of 2003, according to official reports there were a total of 611 mine accidents killing 1,090 people. In Shenzhen, a reported average of 13 factory workers a day lose a finger or an arm and one dies every four and a half days. In 2002, reports state that over 14,000 workers died in a total of 13,960 accidents in the manufacturing and mining industries alone.
On top of this litany of injury, Chinese workers lives are put at additional risk by management which forces them to continue working in the face of imminent danger.
Last month CLB reported on a fatal fire at the Zhengda Qingdao Factory where 21 workers lost their lives after reportedly being forced to stay at work until their tasks were finished amid growing smoke and flames. CLB also discovered that many of the miners, who died in an explosion at the Mengnanzhuang mine in Shanxi on 22 March 2003, died after being sent back down the mine shaft despite an increasing smell of gas and the miners’ fear that an explosion was imminent. The explosion took the lives of 72 miners.
The Chinese authority’s response to the appalling legacy of death and injury in Chinese industry is inadequate and ineffective. New laws have been passed on health and safety, on mine management and on occupational disease and yet the numbers of injured and ill continue to rise. The new laws are themselves not adequately enforced and the overwhelming push for profits and the apparent disregard for the safety of workers mean that most factories continue to flout regulations and fail to invest in even the most basic health and safety equipment.
In the light of the appalling health and safety record of China, on 28 April 2003, International Workers Memorial Day, China Labour Bulletin began a campaign to end the ever increasing numbers of Chinese workers injured or killed at work. We are urging the Chinese authorities to allow workers the right to establish health and safety committees, to protect and promote the right of workers to have both reasonable living wages and safe working conditions and to grant workers the right to set up independent trade unions and other groups to protect and promote their interests.
Sign up to our campaign to put an end to the massive number of deaths and injuries in Chinese industry.
China Labour Bulletin
1 May 2003