January 3, 2016
Eli Friedman is assistant professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University. Aaron Halegua is a research scholar of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University School of Law. Jerome A. Cohen is director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute and an adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
They came for the feminists in the spring. In the summer, they came for the rights-defense lawyers. And on Dec. 3, the eve of China’s Constitution Day, Chinese authorities initiated a widespread crackdown on labor activists in the industrial powerhouse of Guangdong province.
Since they first appeared 20 years ago, China’s labor nongovernmental organizations have suffered regular rounds of repression and harassment, including tax audits, mafia violence and continual interrogation by security officials. But this most recent repression is more serious. It seems that the Communist Party is intent on stamping out labor activism in civil society once and for all.
In this campaign, dozens of individuals have been intimidated through police interrogations, and seven, including Zeng Feiyang, the well-known leader of a Guangzhou labor group, have been detained on criminal charges. Their lawyers’ requests to meet with them have been denied. These activists are reportedly being held for “assembling crowds to disrupt social order,” allegedly encouraging or even tricking workers into making unreasonable demands and taking extreme actions.
These unjust police measures completely miss the point. Labor conflict in China has indeed been growing rapidly in recent years, with wildcat strikes, road blockades and even riots becoming regular occurrences. But workers are striking because labor laws are not enforced and there are no effective means for legally resolving collective disputes — not because workers are being duped by NGOs with unspecified ulterior motives. For instance, in the Lide Footwear Factory strike, which state media has spotlighted as evidence of Zeng’s guilt, workers protested their employer’s long-term failure to make legally required social security and other payments after learning of plans to relocate the factory. NGOs did not provoke this conflict.
In fact, labor NGOs play a productive role in resolving such disputes. Chinese employers often “handle” strikes by ignoring workers’ demands and contacting the authorities, who increasingly send in police to rough up workers and detain strike leaders. By contrast, as in the Lide case, labor NGOs advise strikers on how to formulate their demands, elect representatives and engage in collective negotiations with employers to resolve the underlying violations, and sometimes even assist in reaching agreements governing future relations.
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