The future of labour NGOs? A Response to Two Mindsets

Written by: Dr. Chan King Chi, Chris, Associate Professor, Applied Social Science Department, City University of Hong Kong

On 3 December 2015, seven leaders of labour NGOs in Guangzhou were detained and four of them faced subsequent criminal prosecutions. Most of the affected NGOs were prominently active in assisting workers' collective struggles, pushing for collective bargaining between 2012 and 2015. Labour lawyers and some academics called this new type of NGOs as “movement-oriented NGOs”, in order to distinguish them from the social service-oriented NGOs and legal right-oriented NGOs. They also pointed out that movement-oriented NGOs would gradually help stimulate workers' needs. However, by the time research papers on movement-oriented NGOs were published in 2017, these NGOs either cease to exist or operate due to the crackdown in late 2015. Thus, among the labour rights supporters, some started to negate the role of labour NGOs. In this article, the author urges the Chinese labour rights supporters in China and overseas to give up on their polarizing opinions and objectively analyses the current causes and opportunities, so as to pursuit the goal of social justice determinately.

Looking back in history, especially the history of labour NGOs in the Pearl River Delta Region, all started with the initiation made by Hong Kong labour organizations, labour activists and labour academics; followed by overseas foundations' interested in Chinese migrant workers. With the more relaxing policies, Chinese labour rights leaders and intellectuals began to establish labour organizations and eventually, many of them came into the fore. To care about and support Chinese workers is the goal, while the existence of labour NGOs can be seen as a measure of a particular historical stage. As long as individuals and organizations which still care about labour issues, such measures can vary and be flexible. For example, eight university students from Beijing came to Guangzhou for a reading session recently, were then detained and wanted by the Government, instigated enormous support from Chinese scholars and intellectuals alike. It illustrates that the class struggle of labour rights between the civil society and Government has been ongoing, developing and ever changing.

Over-optimism or over-pessimism can be harmful in hard times. Optimists prefer not to face the mistakes of their strategies, continue to chant the magic words of “movement-oriented NGOs”, “collective bargaining”, “(to influence) trade union reform”, blindly believe that social corrective measures would return in the near future. Pessimists would accuse the competition between labour NGOs of harming workers' solidarity and some organizations might be even corrupted, they conclude that under the heavy-handed rule of the Chinese government, workers can organize themselves and labour NGOs are no longer needed. The first type of people believe in movement blindly and underestimate the strength of the authoritarian state, their supporters and the whole labour movement would end up paying a costly price for it. Certain cynicism is shared by the second type of believers, as they ignored the complexity of the labour issues and the diversity of labour NGOs.

Under the current circumstances, it is impossible to promote movement-oriented labour NGOs, but it does not mean that labour NGOs could not exist or serve their role in workers' life and work. Firstly, community-based labour service organizations still reach out to, connect with and educate workers. Secondly, under the economic transformation, the casualization labour market would be further intensified and labour rights will continue to be exploited, especially for workers in the emerging service sectors; labour NGOs with experiences in promoting labour legislation and safeguarding workers' rights among the manufacturing workers can continue to help the new service workers. Thirdly, labour disputes stem from the capitalist mode of production, although the state might deliver policies to mediate the industrial relations, it cannot eliminate labour disputes. Labour disputes are not caused by labour NGOs and thus, would not disappear together with the labour NGOs. The question is, when a labour dispute breaks out, is there a need to support workers? If the answer is yes, what is the possible and sustainable measure? Various activists and organizations might offer different answers and practices. No matter where they are and how they are carried out, these external supporting forces are meaningful. In short, despite the practice of movement-oriented NGOs failed due to the absence of social support foundation, it does not mean that the service-oriented, rights-oriented labour NGOs or other supporting actions are useless or have no further role to play. In fact, some migrant workers' organizations exist and operate as the government expands its service procurement, foundations are being set up by Chinese enterprises and some moderate overseas' foundations manage to register their organizations in China. They are encouraged by the policies and approved by authorities. Thus, we should not simply describe or understand these organizations and their members as “being  mollifed”. In the past two decades, activists of labour NGOs always have tried to survive and develop in the very limited space of civil society in China.

There are still some positive factors hidden in the current grim political climate. The third sector is growing in China and young, educated urban youths are looking for space and exploring their roles to take part in social reform. It is true that some people might get upset and disappointed by the political pressure and rejoin the mainstream society, but many others would seek for new space and possibilities, to care about social injustice or to take action to improve certain aspects of the society. This wave of middle-class intellectual youth movement has its own historical features. The activists grew up in 1980s and 1990s, the heyday of neo-liberalism and post-modernism; and the concept of class solidarity of labour politics is unfamiliar to them. Some recent research on civil society pointed out that the emerging feminist movement would connect with labour movement and become a threat to the Government. Such a theory upsets many activists in these two movements, because it connected fragmented evidence to exaggerate the political significance of the rights-movement, cross-sectoral connection and the importance of labour issues in the middle-class civil society. For labour activists, one major challenge in future is to bring the labour issues to mainstream society, to make the society care about grassroots workers' conditions and socio-economic injustice. To gain sympathy and support by exposing labour exploitation of the grassroots workers, could help disclose the multi-exploitation brought along by the authoritarian capitalism and seek for the ultimate liberation for humankind.