Since June, Sunflower Women Workers’ Centre, a three-year-old labour NGO based in Guangdong province that has been active in helping factory girls’ defend their rights, was told by the local civic affairs bureau to “deregister” itself.

This event highlights the surviving difficulty of labour NGOs in China who, once deemed by optimists as an active force for political change and even “sprouts of independent unionism” in China, have been undergoing constant harassment and suppression by the authorities. The future of these labour NGOs in China, as some other observers have pointed out, may hinge on the momentum of China’s labour movement, which will make these labour NGOs’ skills and experiences in demand by the government to mitigate labour conflicts.

Sunflower Women Rights Centre was initially registered as a community service centre to provide study and exchange opportunities for women workers from the nearby factories in Panyu district, Guangdong province. The activities Sunflower organised include dance classes, movie nights, women workers’ forum, mental consultation, and community performances. It is estimated that the Sunflower’s service area covered 100,000 female workers at its highest time.

A banner in praise of service provided by Sunflower to workers from Panyu Yonglong company. Photo credit: wildfire collection

Sunflower’s services for female workers won recognition not only from factory girls, but also from the local district youth league committee, who sponsored a series of Sunflower’s activities and even recommended Sunflower to the Guangzhou municipal committee.

In 2013, Sunflower, together with another women workers’ rights centre, issued a survey on the sexual harassment of women factory workers in Guangzhou. The survey was picked up by mainstream media such as the Southern Metropolis Daily, and pointed out:

Around 70% of women workers had at some point in their working life encountered certain form of sexual harassment, including offensive comments and jokes, leering, obscene phone calls and messages, touching without consent, displaying genitalia, asking for sex, etc. The problem is so serious that 15% of the respondents actually quit their jobs due to sexual harassment.

Hongmei at an experience sharing session. Photo credit: wildfire collection

Hongmei at an experience sharing session. Photo credit: wildfire collection

In September 2013, founder of Sunflower, Luo Hongmei, spoke at the launch of a women supporting programme co-organised by the Li Ka Shing Foundation and Guangdong provincial government. The event was themed “How can we help women”, and the women’s image was displayed as weak, outdated, lonely, and waiting to be liberated. Hong Mei proposed the idea that

We shouldn’t label women, and shouldn’t play the lofty saviors for women… The reason why women are “weak” is that they have little resources, platforms and opportunities.

Hongmei, during her speech, also shared the true stories of women workers who survived in tough circumstances with their wisdom and strength. Hongmei’s speech left the audience into deep thinking.

However, since 2014, Sunflower has disappeared from the public eye. A media insider revealed that Sunflower has been blacklisted by the media organisation, and the reason is likely due to Sunflower’s successful intervention in several labour disputes over the years:

  • In April 2013, Sunflower provided consultation to Qinyi jewelry workers who were dissatisfied with forced contract termination and low compensation. Workers, under Sunflower’s help, negotiated with the factory and obtained their legally deserved compensation.
  • In April 2013, Sunflower assisted 300 workers from Yonglong plastic toy factory to obtain contract severance compensation and managed to let the factory to pay back workers’ social insurance and housing funds before the factory relocation.
  • In May 2013, Sunflower helped 300 Hitachi workers successfully make the factory pay back their social insurance accounts.
  • In August 2013, Sunflower started consulting around 1,000 workers from Sumida factory who demanded the factory to contribute to their unpaid social insurance and housing funds. During the over one-year’s negotiation, Sunflower helped workers set up their own trade union, and Sumida finally agreed to pay off workers’ social insurance in arrears, which totalled over 40 million yuan (around 4 million pounds).
Sunflower staff sitting in front of a locked office door. Photo credit: wildfire collection

Sunflower staff sitting in front of a locked office door. Photo credit: wildfire collection

Despite Sunflower’s excellent work in helping workers defend their rights, the government is obviously not very happy about it:

  • In May 2013, shortly after Sunflower’s intervention in Hitachi workers’ labour dispute, Sunflower was notified by the street office and the landlord to move their office.
  • In December 2013, during Sunflower’s consultation with Sumida workers, Sunflower was evicted by the property management company, who cut off Sunflower’s water and electricity supplies and even sealed Sunflower’s rolling shutter door by welding it to the floor.
  • In 2014, the civic affair bureau failed Sunflower’s “annual inspection” and asked its staff to stay away from ‘defending workers’ rights’ or other sensitive topics.
  • In June 2015, Hongmei received an administrative penalty hearing notice from Guangzhou Panyu District Civic Bureau. The notice states that given Sunflower doesn’t have a fixed office, most of the staff have either resigned or no longer actively involved in the centre’s affairs, and the funding is difficult to keep the centre’s daily operation…it is proposed that an administrative penalty of revoking your license will be delivered.

While Hongmei prepares for the hearing, she also commented:

“We have got used to these kinds of threats. But no matter what, we will continue with our work somehow.”

USi will follow up with Sunflower’s latest development and update readers whenever possible.

Recommended reading:

Labour NGOs in China: A Real Force for Political Change? (Ivan Franceschini)

 在工人与国家之间:中国劳工NGO的生成、类型及转型  (李春云 段毅)

奉旨自裁还是辕门枭首:一个女工组织应该怎么死?  (野火集)


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Jennifer Zhang

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

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