Financial Times: China crackdown on labour activism bolstered by court ruling

27 June 2019

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

April 15 2014

By Tom Mitchell in Beijing

A court in southern China has convicted 11 workers for “disrupting public order” in a closely watched test case of the government’s intolerance towards a recent surge in labour activism across the country.

The guilty verdicts in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, came on the same morning that eyewitnesses said more than 10,000 striking workers at a Taiwanese shoe factory took to the streets in the nearby industrial centre of Dongguan.

Last year, Chinese authorities used public disorder charges to round up legal activists and constitutional reformers in a crackdown that culminated in January with a four-year jail term for Xu Zhiyong, in China’s highest profile political show trial since Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo was jailed in 2009.

The later use of public disorder charges against workers in southern China was seen as an expansion of this campaign. People convicted of “disrupting public order” in China can face a maximum prison term of five years.

In August, Guangzhou police detained 12 security guards who had been involved in a long-running dispute with their hospital employer. While 11 were convicted in a verdict handed down on Tuesday, two were not given prison terms and the others received sentences of three to nine months. Another guard who pleaded guilty also escaped a prison sentence.

Another three defendants were eligible for immediate release on the basis of time served. The remainder, including protest leader Meng Han, will be freed by May 18 as they have already been held for eight months.

The security guards’ lawyer, Duan Yi, said the judge’s decision was a “very technical” one that sought to defuse the situation with relatively lenient sentences while also serving as a warning to workers involved in labour disputes elsewhere.

“The sentence reflects the authorities’ attempt at damage control,” added Geoff Crothall at China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based worker rights group. “They realised pretty soon after these guys were arrested that their case was going to cause more problems than it solved, so they had to find some way out.”

In another high-profile public disorder case in Shenzhen, the special economic zone bordering Hong Kong, Wu Guijun stands accused of leading his fellow factory workers in a march to government offices that allegedly disrupted traffic.

Over recent months, companies including IBM, Walmart and Yue Yuen Industrial, a Taiwanese shoe manufacturer whose clients include Nike and Adidas, have been affected by industrial actions.

About half of the 1,000 workers at an IBM factory in Shenzhen decided to quit after striking over the terms of their transfer to Chinese computer group Lenovo, while a group of about 70 Walmart workers affected by a store closure in Hunan province are continuing their campaign for higher pay.

The unrest at the Yueyuen facility, which has been simmering since last week, erupted on Tuesday as more than 10,000 workers took to the streets.

They allege that the Hong Kong-listed company has short-changed them on social security payments and other benefits, and are also demanding a 30 per cent salary increase. Yue Yuen executives did not respond to a request for comment.

While the Walmart protests are being led by a group of workers affiliated with the normally passive All China Federation of Trade Unions, the government-sanctioned union has played no role in the industrial actions at IBM and Yue Yuen.

“The ACFTU is not involved,” said Zhang Zhiru, who heads a labour NGO in Shenzhen and has been advising the workers at Yue Yuen.

“The workers haven’t elected any representatives – it has been entirely spontaneous. I recommended that they elect representatives for collective bargaining with the company, but they haven’t listened to my suggestion.”

Additional reporting by Wan Li

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