From Student to Labour Activist: Shen Mengyu’s Quest for Justice
In the evening of 11 August 2018, Shen Mengyu, a representative from the student-worker-coalition which supports the Jasic workers was seized by a number of unknown assailants after dinner with her friends. All of a sudden, her name was spread all over the internet. However, her quest for justice to workers have started years ago, when she was still a student.
Shen graduated with a master’s degree in mathematics and computational science from Sun Yat-sen University in 2015. Her qualification could have guaranteed her a well-paid job, she could have lived a middle-class life, like many of her classmates. Yet she chose to enter a factory and became an assembly line worker. During her college years, she learned a lot about workers’ suffering through workshops and school activities, and was determined to study labour legislations. In 2014, she experienced the strike of cleaning workers in the Guangzhou University Town. At the strike, she witnessed the hypocrisy and shamelessness of businesses, as well as the indifferences of government officials. As a result of workers’ solidarity and students’ support, the cleaning workers finally succeeded in defending their rights. This protest inspired and encouraged Shen to fight for workers’ dignity and rights and led her to become a worker at a Japanese-invested automobile parts factory——Guangzhou NHK Spring Precision.
NHK mainly produces springs used on engines and clutches for car companies such as Dongfeng Honda, Guangqi Honda and Nissan. After some simple training, Shen was sent to work in the factory. “The roar of machines stung my eardrum, the smell of oil blew on my face, and metal dust filled the whole workshop. The working area was oily and shiny, and workers in it were busy and strained. The hazard sign of benzene and other chemicals made me nervous. Workers only wore disposable masks, which could neither effectively block dust nor filter toxic gases. Some of them even didn’t wear masks.” she described in an open letter. As she talked with her colleagues, she noticed that many workers would suffer from health problems such as rhinitis, bronchitis, or hearing loss or experience white blood cell decline after working some time in such appalling labour conditions. Workers were paid with meagre wages and could only sacrifice their rest hours to work overtime to increase their income. No matter how high the temperature is or how bad the working conditions are, workers were expect to keep their productivity high, many of them could not endure it and quit, the management would also dismiss the senior workers ruthlessly.
In March 2018, Shen and some other workers were elected by her colleagues to negotiate wages and year-end bonus with the employer. As the new representatives refused to follow the union chairperson’s instruction, they were retaliated by the trade union and enterprise. Despite the repression, Shen and other workers were again elected as workers’ representatives and she launched a survey to find out what the workers really wanted. The enterprise escalated its repression, forbidding her from contacting front-line workers, threatening those who supported her and eventually, the trade union and enterprise bypassed the standard procedure and disqualified her role as workers’ representative. They further dismissed her by making excuses such as creating conflicts with superiors and disturbing order in the factory. Facing such injustice, Shen chose to address it openly. On 19 June, she flied a complaint of “unlawful dismissal” against NHK at Guangzhou Labour Dispute Arbitration Committee.
When workers of Jasic Technology demanded to set up their own union, Shen and her friends promptly organized a “Jasic Workers Solidarity Support Group” and played an important role from the beginning. On 20 July, some 20 Jasic workers were detained. Shen and her Support Group joined the Jasic workers and called the college students all over China to go to support them in Guangzhou. On 27 July, Mi Jiuping and other workers’ leaders of Jasic Technology and some members of Support Group were detained, the Support Group served the role to support their families and sought public attention by sharing their stories online. Shen was the lead figure and spokesperson of the Support Group to deal with the media. Despite the enormous pressure, Shen continued to write on behalf of the Support Group and called for public support to help the Jasic workers. Her determination made her the target of retaliation.
Her determination, namely to fight for workers’ dignity and rights no matter how difficult it is, is shared by many other activists and workers’ leaders. Currently, 14 workers are still detained. On 24 August, some 50 young people from the Support Group were all detained. The wave of detentions does not stop the Support Group’s work, they keep voicing out for workers. They believe, only when we all persist in our resistance, when we are united, we can bring sustainable transformation and improvement into our lives.