This week, USi talked to a Shenzhen-based labour activist, who has been involved in major labour conflicts in the past few years. Recently he quit his job from a prominent labour NGO. He shared with USi his observations over the challenges of China’s labour movement, and his plan of setting up his own labour NGO.

The government is reining in the development of labour organisations. New ones have been shut down. Factories are having difficulty making decent profits and many are moving outside the Pearl River Delta and even China, triggering a series of protests where workers demand severance compensation. Furthermore, the old-generation migrant workers (aged over 50) are retiring but find they don’t have proper social insurance in place. All those factors lead to the escalation of collective labour incidents in China.

This week, USi talked to a Shenzhen-based labour activist, who has been involved in major labour conflicts in the past few years. Recently he quit his job from a prominent labour NGO. He shared with USi his observations over the challenges of China’s labour movement, and his plan of setting up his own labour NGO.

Due to the sensitivity of the issues discussed, we decided not to reveal his true name in this story.

USi: What are the external environment of China’s labour movement in your opinion?

Labour activist (LA): We face both external and internal challenges. Externally, China’s economy is not performing as well as before. Governments are reluctant to support workers’ collective actions, and employers are financially limited to make compromises.

USi: How about internally?

LA: I think the biggest dilemma is how we can cultivate the new generation of labour activists. There is not much career progression for young people at labour NGOs.

Also, we have the long-standing problem of organisational management, which is an issue prevalent not only in labour NGOs but in all types of NGOs in China. The resources are always controlled by founders, and there’s a lack of supervision on how those resources are managed and allocated. There is a popular term in our circle, ‘founder syndrome’, which means the founder has the biggest say, and some are reluctant to accept young people’s ideas or recognise our talent.

USi: That must be frustrating. Is it the reason why you decided to leave this area for the moment?

LA: That is one reason. Another reason is I realised I can not be working on the frontline like our senior labour activists. They have protection but I don’t. I still need to make a living and support my family.

USi: You must have a plan of your own.

LA: Yes. Actually it would be a good idea if young people can set up their own labour organisations. We have our natural advantage. We are politically clean. We can work on a lot of issues that old NGOs cannot work on.

USi: What projects do you have in mind?

LA: I know collective bargaining is definitely the most important and promising project that may bring about an institutional breakthrough. But collective bargaining also requires the trainers to possess practical skills to handle immediate risks (e.g. police harassment). If the government thinks your involvement is too much, it can impose crackdown anytime. I think I will leave collective bargaining to the brave-hearted pioneers.

For me, I’d like to focus on community capacity-building, which is less sensitive and facing less pressure from the authorities. We can deliver training to raise workers’ citizen awareness and equip them with legal knowledge. The downside is the project outcome is often difficult to evaluate.

Previous USi exclusives:

USi China Exclusive: Chinese workers’ fight for right to pneumoconiosis compensation – a profile of He Bing

USi China Exclusive: from student leader to labour rights defender, a profile of Lin Dong


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Jennifer Zhang

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

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