Refusing to Honor Labor Rights Backfires on China

Just before the Chinese New Year in February, the Stella Xing Ang shoe factory in Dongguan, China, became a casualty of the country’s economic slowdown. Declining orders and higher production costs meant that after 13 years of producing shoes for major international brands, the business would close, and 2,000 employees would lose their jobs.

Given the rise in worker activism and labor unrest in China over the last several years, one might have expected the Stella workers to strike or to stage a mass protest in January when the company announced the factory closure. But nothing happened: Most workers seemed happy with the layoff deal offered by management and left their jobs without a fuss.

Still, the Stella workers were not meekly acquiescing to their fate. They had been out on strike many times over the past decade, demanding better pay and benefits. It was because of this long history of activism that the managers at Stella made sure the workers were paid everything they were owed before the factory was shuttered.

But in thousands of other factory closures across China, owners have been much less compliant with labor regulations. China claims to be a country ruled by law, but the government has routinely failed to ensure that employers honor workers’ legal rights – and the result has been more protests. The only way to prevent more unrest is, simply, for the government to enforce the laws.

There has been a steady rise in the number of strikes and worker protests over the last few years. China Labour Bulletin logged 1,379 incidents in 2014. This doubled to 2,774 in 2015, with 877 incidents recorded in the first quarter of 2016. The single biggest cause of these protests by far is wage arrears. In most cases, employers simply stop paying wages, cut overtime, and generally make life intolerable for the workers so that they choose to leave. If the workers refuse to quit and demand payment, the boss often vanishes, leaving workers out of pocket with nowhere to go.

The government’s response to more worker activism has been to crack down. Government officials have been warned by superiors that they will lose their jobs if unrest occurs on their watch, and they have responded by threatening striking workers, harassing their families and using riot police to break up protests. In early December, the authorities in Guangdong went one step further and rounded up more than a dozen labor rights professionals, all working in local organizations, who had played a key role in resolving numerous disputes. Two leading activists remain in jail in Guangzhou awaiting trial.

The Chinese government is paying the price for decades of not enforcing the regulations that were put in place ostensibly to protect workers. Local officials, eager to attract investment during the boom years, were more than happy to ignore delinquent bosses and often actively conspired in their wrongdoing. The massive Yue Yuen shoe factory Dongguan, for example, had been cheating employees out of their benefits for years with the full knowledge of the local government. Workers only got full payment when 40,000 of them staged a two-week strike in 2014.

Employers who were never forced to pay employee benefits during the boom times are not going to suddenly comply when their businesses are in trouble. In the face of an unresponsive government, often the only way for workers to guarantee that delinquent bosses pay up is to take collective action, often with the help of local labor activists – experts in collective bargaining who can organize workers and get employers to negotiate with them. Last year, for example, around 2,000 workers at the Lide shoe factory in Guangzhou staged a nine-month campaign that, after many rounds of collective bargaining, finally convinced management to adhere to its legal obligations.

The Panyu Migrant Workers Center, an organization that works with China Labour Bulletin, has been instrumental in helping resolve dozens of labor disputes, such as the Lide strike, by convincing employers to negotiate with the workers. But just six months after the successful resolution of the Lide dispute, the director of the Panyu center, Zeng Feiyang, and two staff members were arrested in the December crackdown on activists. Mr. Zeng and one staffer remain in detention, both charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb social order,” and the center is effectively closed. The Guangdong authorities have also made life increasingly difficult for the other labor groups in the area, warning them to keep away from disputes or risk arrest.

These Guangdong labor professionals have developed a successful method of resolving disputes by organizing workers, helping to frame their demands and to elect representatives who can directly bargain with management. Without the moderating influence of these collective bargaining experts, there is a danger that frustrated and angry workers will resort to more extreme — or even violent — measures to pursue their cause, precisely the outcome the Chinese government is desperate to avoid.

Mr. Zeng and his colleagues have done far more to honor China’s labor laws than the government officials who now seem determined to put them out of business. Instead of punishing and vilifying these activists, the Chinese government should learn from their example and ensure that the laws on the books are actually enforced. Making employers follow labor regulations would lead to a more content work force – and that’s in the interest of the government and the Chinese people.

Geoffrey Crothall is the communications director of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit organization that supports and promotes the workers’ movement in China.

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