Lin Dong, the Chinese labour activist who was detained for 30 days in the landmark Yue Yuen strike, talks to USi how he accidentally became a labour rights defender, his general thoughts about major labour events in 2014, and his genuine hope for social justice in China in the new year.
In the first month of 2015, USi invites labour rights defenders in China to sum up the new developments in China’s labour field in 2014, and to share their outlooks and expectations for labour relations in 2015.
Our first interviewee is Lin Dong, the student-turned labour rights advocate who was detained for 30 days due to his active involvement in the 12-day-long Yue Yuen shoe factory workers’ strike in April, 2014. Unlike many of his peers who had been factory workers before becoming a labour rights advocate, Lin was from a student background.
Lin was already trying to push for social justice when he studied nuclear physics in Sichuan University, but to his disappointment his approach of student movement did not work well. His teacher told him the fundamental force for social change is from grassroots workers. Following this advice, Lin joined Shenzhen Chunfeng Labour Disputes Service Centre in 2012.
USi: What major changes did you see in China’s labour relations in the past year?
Lin: The most encouraging thing for me is that labour NGOs (who often play an instrumental role in consulting and training workers) are more united than before. In 2014, many labour NGOs started talking with each other and sharing their experiences (in helping workers), such as in the IBM workers’ action in Shenzhen, Yue Yuen workers’ strike in Dongguan, and Walmart workers’ protest in Changde. Labour NGOs gradually realised that they need to work with each other for a better solution of labour disputes.
The positioning of China’s labour NGOs is changing too. In the past, many labour NGOs are acting like charities. But in 2014, lots of labour organisations realised ‘behaving good’ is far from enough, and began providing empowering trainings to workers.
On the other hand, the Chinese government in general is tightening its control over those empowering NGOs, especially those that receive overseas funding. Authorities are keeping a closer eye on them and adopting various ways to harass or crack down on them.
As to the official trade union (the All China Federation of Trade Unions, or ACFTU), I didn’t see much change in it in 2014. Most of times I think it just pays its lips service when it is expected to side with workers or help workers defend their rights.
USi: What is labour NGOs’ role in Yue Yuen strike that mobilised over 30,000 workers?
Lin: Chunfeng played a consultative role for workers. During such a big scale industrial action, workers could be emotional and radical. We talked with workers and encouraged them to defend their rights through legal channels. Although media reported workers started the strike on 14 April, many workers actually went out to block an express bridge as early as 4 April. We need to calm workers down, help them analyse the situation and to come up with the best strategies to negotiate with the factory and the government.
USi: You were detained for quite a period of time during Yue Yuen strike because you posted some photos on workers’ QQ group. How did that impact your work in labour rights advocacy?
Lin: I was detained by the police for 30 days. It affected me dramatically, so dramatic that this experience actually enhanced my determination in doing the right thing. Our director Zhang Zhiru evaluated carefully the risks Chunfeng might face before Chunfeng intervened in the Yue Yuen strike. We predicted we might be thrown in jail if we did it. But we finally decided to take this case, because we don’t want to see workers’ peaceful industrial action turn into a riot, get suppressed and end in bloodshed.
USi: Do you think Yue Yuen strike is a landmark case in China’s labour movement history?
Lin: Yue Yuen workers are good role models for workers elsewhere. After they took action to get their statutory social insurance, workers from other factories started to realise social insurance is part of their legal rights too and they began their own industrial actions as well.
USi: What’s your expectation for China’s labour relations in 2015?
Lin: I hope more workers could realise and defend their legal rights and see the point of democratic trade union elections. I hope labour NGOs could work closer with one another. I also hope ACFTU could show more support to workers, and local governments could be more tolerant towards workers and labour NGOs.
USi: How about yourself? Do you see labour rights advocacy your long-term commitment?
Lin: I am passionate about workers’ rights. The majority of workers’ industrial actions today still focus on their statutory rights like social insurance and housing subsidy. But we have many fundamental social inequalities that are closely related to workers’ life too, such as the household-registration system and migrant children’s education. I hope I could work on these issues and push for a change as well.
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