In the latest trial of Wu Guijun, a worker representative who participated in a May factory strike and is charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb transport order”, over 50 workers, journalists and NGO staff gathered outside the court to show their support, according to Pang Kun, the lawyer who defended for Wu.
Wu was among several hundred workers from the Shenzhen-based furniture manufacturer, Diweixin, who went on a 3-week strike asking for legal severance compensation after they learnt the factory was going to be relocated. With no hope of getting the management to negotiate, workers protested and were detained by the local police on their way to the municipal government. 20 workers were detained for 13 days and 2 were held custody for 37 days, according to an open letter sent by Diweixin workers to the Shenzhen ACFTU, China’s official trade union body.
Wu, who worked for Diweixin for nine years and was one of the seven worker representatives elected to talk with the management, was detained for over 100 days without being indicted. It was only after two rounds of police’s follow-up investigations did the procurator formally charge Wu this January.
In September last year, Wu’s co-workers setup a Strong Diweixin Workers account on Weibo, China’s twitter like social media service, to strive for social attention on Wu and call for his release. The Weibo posts said what Wu did during the strike was entirely legal, and encouraged netizens to sign petitions to the ACFTU and raise money for Wu’s family. So far the Weibo account has over 200 followers, got over 400 signatures last December and managed to raise 5,750 yuan by last November.
At the international level, labour activists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Europe joined mainland labour groups to call for Wu’s release and defend workers’ right to strike. In China, strike remains outside the law. The lack of an effective protection mechanism makes workers representatives vulnerable to all kinds of reprisals, retaliations and punishment from employers and the government. Dismissal, position downgrading, administrative detention, or even imprisonment are common ways used to retaliate and punish workers who stage protests and strikes.
The domestic mainstream media is also leaning towards workers in their news coverage of labour strikes to echo the empathetic sentiment from the general public. In China, workers are generally deemed as the underprivileged groups who are heavily exploited by profit driven “capitalists”.
In the Yangcheng Evening News coverage of Wu’s case, for instance, the editorial team asks why workers would get fired when they are forced to resort to work stoppage to fight for their legally entitled rights. The article explains that given a lack of effective collective bargaining channel, wildcat strikes and protests are the only means for Chinese workers to make the management sit at the negotiation table and get the salary and compensation that they deserved. The entire article lends workers a complaint channel and portrays the labour conflict from the perspective of workers and labour activists.
The article also quotes officials from the ACFTU, whose top priority remains maintaining social stability rather than protecting workers’ rights. They do not encourage workers to take industrial actions but persuade workers to go through legal channels, which may take years.
Jennifer Cheung has been following China’s labour movement for over three years. She formerly worked at China Labour Bulletin as a policy analyst specialising in the study of Chinese workers and their use of social media. You follow her on Twitter @amelia_jen
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