Peng Jiayong, a Chinese labour rights activist who was severely beaten and hospitalised due to his active involvement in the Cui Heng factory workers’ strike, told USi despite the threat and violence he endured, he won’t stop helping workers defend labour rights.

The series of Chinese government crackdowns on workers and labour rights centres in Guangdong have shed some light on the official policies of tackling grass-roots labour activism.

Late March, around 200 workers at Cui Heng handbag factory in Zhongshan, a town in Guangdong, staged a strike demanding the factory to repay their social insurance contributions before the factory relocation. This is one of the hundreds of strikes that take place in the Pearl River Delta each year, but the hard-line crackdown approach taken by the local authority has surprised the entire labour rights community.

On 24 March, the day of the Cui Heng strike, around 200 policemen came to the factory to contain the protest and allegedly arrested 16 female workers and 10 male workers. On 2 April, several labour rights activists who consulted workers on collective bargaining strategies were summoned by the police for questioning. Peng Jiayong, one of the activists, was severely beaten by seven to eight masked thugs who Peng believed were employed by the police.

As to the reason why the authorities used such violence against works and activists, Peng told USi that the police from Zhongshan has been barbaric towards labour rights organisations all the time. One labour centre was forced to move office, and a NGO staffer had been beaten three times for his involvement in other cases. But in Cui Heng’s case, Peng noted that police’s approach had gone ‘more violent and extreme’.

“Local authorities are prohibiting labour rights centres from contacting workers, which is the biggest obstacle for Cui Heng workers to reach an agreement with the factory,” Peng said. “As a result, workers are unable to get timely and efficient legal consultation and assistance for collective bargaining.”

Also in April, Zeng Feiyang, director of Panyu Migrant Workers Service Centre, was summoned by police for ‘gathering crowd to disturb social order’ due to Zeng’s intervention in the collective labour dispute at a local shoe factory called Li De. A police officer told Zeng that the police had received a report from Li De factory alleging Zeng’s centre was ‘inciting workers to cause trouble’.

Zeng and his colleague Meng Han were released after eight hours’ police questioning. Pan Yu Centre noted in a statement that Li De workers came to the Centre for consultation over the factory’s relocation plan and its subsequent impact on workers’ rights and benefits, including the factory’s failure to pay workers’ social insurance contribution. Pan Yu Centre was helping workers elect representatives to negotiate with Li De management. In the statement, Pan Yu centre expressed its disappointment over the factory’s unwise move of calling for police over the collective bargaining process.

The labour rights community has been showing solidarity to workers and activists impacted by recent government crackdowns. A petition letter drafted by Laogong Huzhu (in Chinese means workers help each other) is being widely circulated on Chinese social media Weibo. The letter not only provided a clear account of the Cui Heng case progress, but also called for an immediate investigation of the perpetrators to honour Chinese leaders’ pledge of rule of law. The petition letter has so far gather over 220 signatures from lawyers, labour rights activists and volunteers, students, workers, scholars, writers and businessmen.

Neither workers nor labour rights activists yielded to the political pressure. On 13 April, Cui Heng workers staged the second round of protest demanding the factory management to negotiate with them. One labour rights centre involved in the collective bargaining consultation for Cui Heng workers issued a statement on the same day saying they will not give in to police crackdown, and remains deeply committed to defending social justice and workers’ rights and interests through collective bargaining.

Peng, who was just de-hospitalised, said he will not stop providing consultation for Cui Heng workers.

“It is a shame that the authorities are using violence against us,” Peng said. “But we won’t stop our work because of that.”

Wu Guijun, labour rights activist and founder of the labour rights resource and service centre Xin Gong Yi, told USi that the Cui Heng case is the worst government repression the labour rights community has witnessed in 2015.

“The message we have received so far is that the government has gone crazy and will resort to all means possible to suppress civil society (including labour rights organisations), which is an irony when we think about the top officials’ pledge of rule by law,” Wu noted. “Although it will definitely make our work more difficult, we remain devoted to our beliefs and are mentally prepared to carry on with our work and fulfil our responsibilities. ”

Related news and analysis:

China Labour Bulletin: At the sharp end of the workers’ movement in China: The Zhongshan Cuiheng strike    

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Jennifer Zhang

Jennifer Zhang is USi’s China coordinator based in Hong Kong.

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