Labor NGOs Face Tough Times in Guangdong; Group Alleges Child Labor, Corruption in Factory Audits
Key Development: Seven labor rights and labor education groups have been evicted due to pressure on landlords by local governments.
Potential Impact: Groups see the crackdown as part of a new effort of social management that steers all labor issues through official channels while at the same time trying to eliminate or pressure independent voices.
SHENZHEN, China – Up to seven labor nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and migrant worker advocacy groups in south China’s Guangdong province have been forced to move or close their offices in the past six months after being evicted by landlords who came under pressure from local authorities, groups affected told BNA on August 15.
Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), a labor rights group based in Hong Kong, released a statement on August 6 detailing what it called a “crackdown” on such groups in the cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan.
SACOM also issued an open letter from dozens of international scholars who follow China labor policies on Aug. 15 that calls on the Guangdong government to address the “apparently systematic repression” against the labor groups.
The push against the labor NGOs comes at a time when authorities in Shenzhen have begun to allow greater freedom for workers to organize under the only official labor union in China, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), in order to participate in direct elections of worker representatives in their factories.
Following one such election at OMRON Electronic Components (Shenzhen) Ltd. on May 27, the head of the Shenzhen branch of the ACFTU said that 163 companies could hold direct elections for union representatives over the next year, though labor watchers have not seen any indication that this has started two-and-a-half months into the pilot project.
Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesperson for Hong Kong-based labor rights group China Labor Bulletin, told BNA by phone on August 16 that it was difficult to know how well the direct election process is going since the Shenzhen ACFTU, which is directing the pilot process in the municipality, has not announced any election results from other factories.
Chen Mao, an officer at the Shenzhen Migrant Workers Center (Dagongzhe), one of the labor NGOs recently evicted from its offices, told BNA in an interview during a visit to the group’s new office location on August 15 that most workers feel the pilot election process is a more of a highly orchestrated “show” than a real push for giving more electoral powers for workers.
Guangdong province also issued new regulations on July 1 regarding the registration of NGOs, allowing such groups to register for the first time without having to have a governmental or institutional sponsor as their backer, which has long been seen as a way to manage such groups and restrict their independence.
Debby Chan, a project officer with SACOM, told BNA in a phone discussion on August 15 that there was “a lot of speculation” as to why the crackdown is occurring, saying one possibility was that it is related to government concern about social stability due to the upcoming political transition among the top leadership in Beijing.
Another speculation is that the Shenzhen government – where most of the NGOS impacted are based, besides one other in Dongguan – is trying to “co-opt NGOs that are loyal” while getting rid of those that are not, Chan said.
The third theory is that recent reforms launched in Guangdong and Shenzhen are simply new social management policies by directing any possible social conflict through official channels rather than a real liberalization.
Crothall said he suspected that the moves against the labor NGOs had more to do with the Shenzhen and Dongguan local governments than anything being ordered from higher authorities in Guangdong, though other labor activists are uncertain.
The Dagongzhe center, which has conducted educational and labor rights discussion programs with migrant workers in Shenzhen since 2000, first started getting eviction requests from its landlord in November last year.
The group had signed a three-year lease just two months before, Chen said, but then the landlord started to call on them to leave and “implied that they needed to move and that the local government was behind” the pressure.
An official eviction notice giving the group a week to move came in April, though under their contract the group should have been given a two-month notice, group members said.
Francine Chan, an officer from Worker Empowerment, the Hong Kong-based partner of Dagongzhe, told BNA during the visit that they didn’t realize it was a series of crackdowns until they contacted other labor NGOs and found out they were all having similar eviction problems.
While these pressures on landlords initially have come from the village committees in the localities where the offices are based, Chan said, “no one really knows who it comes from” above that level.
Chen of Dagongzhe said the labor NGOs are “confused” about why this is going on and people are questioning whether the recent relaxation policy toward NGO registration is a “real opening or [just] a new social management policy.”
Chen said they approached the government in the Longgang district of Shenzhen where their offices have been based to discuss the possibility of registering their group, which currently operates under a business license, as an officially-recognized NGO and “the government denied that the policy even existed.”
The group has also reached out to the local ACFTU and was told that they should send their workers to the official labor union for education and that officers there implied that their group did not need to exist and was competing with them, Chen said.
Chen said he “didn’t see a conflict” between what the ACFTU and his group were doing and thought there could be a mutual relationship, but added that “many workers don’t know what a trade union is when they come to us” and questioned whether the ACFTU was actually doing much to educate workers about their rights.
Crothall of China Labor Bulletin said there had recently been a spike in strikes in Guangdong in July related to wage arrears, mainly in construction and manufacturing industries.
Chen echoed his thoughts, saying wage issues were among the top three concerns for workers that come through his center, mainly because the wages have not kept up with rising living costs.
While the minimum wage was raised in Shenzhen officially in February to 1500 yuan per month ($235), many smaller and medium sized companies were not following the rule, while foreign enterprises and domestic companies with over 500 employees are meeting the standards, Chen said.
Other top concerns are related to social insurance and pension that is taken out of salaries, since it is not transparent to many workers where these payments go and confusing about whether they can collect them eventually or how they can transfer what they have paid in to where they have their hukou, or household registration, which is usually back in their hometown.
The increased use of labor dispatch agencies had also “seriously affected the construction industry,” Chen said, because there are so many layers of employment agencies and outsourcing within that industry that it is “often difficult for the workers to track back to their real employer” when they have wage arrears or other wage concerns.
Samsung Accused of Child Labor, Government Denies
A New York-based labor group China Labor Watch (CLW) released a 31-page report on August 7 alleging child labor violations at HEG Electronics (Huizhou) Co., Ltd., a manufacturer of Samsung Electronics Co. phones and DVD players in the city of Huizhou in Guangdong province.
The group conducted investigations by sending investigators to work at the factory in June and July of this year, finding at least seven workers under the age of 16 in their division of the factory and leading them to estimate that there were around 50 to 100 such under-age workers at the facilities in Huizhou.
The investigation also alleges that some auditors from auditing firm Intertek, which did the social responsibility audit on the factory, had been accepted bribes in the past from companies in order to receive passing audits, calling into question the company’s ability to conduct qualified audits.
In a hearing on July 31, CLW founder Li Qiang addressed the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and raised the Intertek issue while also alleging the “audit system used by multinational corporations” in China was “not effective” and “corrupt.”
Authorities in Huizhou denied there were child labor violations at the factory in a statement on the official municipal government website on August 9, saying they had checked the ages of the seven workers alleged to have been underage and found that all were over the age of 16.
The China Labor Watch report can be found here:
By Michael Standaert
Reproduced with permission from Daily Labor Report, 159 DLR A-5 (Aug. 16, 2012). Copyright 2012 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033) http://www.bna.com