The crackdown on the labor movement escalates

Striking workers in factory detained and beaten
Artigas take advantage of loopholes in Law
Workers’ pensions go down the drain

On Dec 10th, 2014, nearly a thousand workers from the Artigas Clothing & Leatherwear Co. Ltd. in Longhua District, Shenzhen went on strike twice to protest the company’s non-payment of social security and housing provident fund. Artigas is the supplier of Japanese fashion brand Uniqlo, and Hong Kong brand G2000.

On Dec 18th, 2014, several hundreds of policemen stormed Artigas, with 31 strike leaders were detained and a number of workers beaten, including pregnant women, and one of the detained workers hospitalized with a severe head injury. However, Artigas stood firm and refused any compensation.

Artigas is a subsidiary of the Hong Kong based Lever Garment Limited, with Uniqlo and G2000 as her main customers. Most of the workers at Artigas – having worked in the factory for more than 10 years, some even more than 20 years – Artigas started paying pension insurance for some workers only in 2003. Some female workers learned that Artigas only started to pay for their pension as recently as 3 years ago, despite over 20 years of service in the company. Senior female workers approaching the retirement age of 50, suddenly learned they were not entitled to pension, as they did not meet the 15 years minimum of social security payments.

Fearing the enterprise would sneak the shipments out, workers at Artigas took turns to guard at the factory.

The boss of Lever Garment Ltd was accompanied by the police, to order the workers first to return to work and then negotiate.

RMB 20 to blackmail workers Striking workers threatened with absenteeism

Despite demands from the workers, the company only agreed verbally to compensate the workers for all non-payments, and the workers launched a strike on Dec. 10th. At the onset of the strike, the workers took shifts, despite cold weather, to prevent the employers from smuggling goods out of the factory. On Dec. 12th, local reporters were denied access to the factory premises and were only able to interview workers through the main gate.  During the interview, a security chief pushed an elderly worker on the ground, but was immediately surrounded by the workers. He was forced an apology for the incident.

Artigas put out a notice, rewarding those returning
to work 20 Yuan and threatening to treat strikers
as abstention from work without permission

On the sixth day of the strike, Dec. 15th, in an effort to coax the striking workers back to work, the employer offered a bonus of RMB 20 per day. Meanwhile, the employer also announced that any worker who went on strike for more than 3 days would be treated as absent. The workers denounced such threats and sneered at the employer for using a mere RMB 20 bribe in response to their demands for social insurance and provident fund. One female worker said, “I won’t take it if even they give me RMB 2000. All I want is my pension. If they give me back my social insurance, I would even work for them for free for one month.”

After the crackdown, workers were forced to work.
They were closely supervised by security personnel or police. A worker described at micro-blog, “if we slow down, we would be violently assaulted.”

At 7am, 18 December 2014, some 300 policemen stormed Artigas.

Employer makes hollow promises to negotiate on one hand Collaborates with police to crackdown on the other hand

On the same day, the workers issued a demand to the employer for collective bargaining.  The employer responded to the request affirmatively the next day and the first meeting was scheduled for the morning of Dec. 18th. Meanwhile, the employer also issued a memo supporting to a suggestion from the workers that staff representatives should be elected through direct election. However, at 7:00 a.m. Dec. 18th, the chief of the Lever Garment Limited stormed the factory with 300 policemen and insisted that negotiations would not commence until the workers returned to work. The striking workers unanimously rejected the demand. At 9:00 a.m., in an attempt to deliver shipments to Uniqlo, the employer had police disperse the workers violently, covering it up as a fire drill. Thirty one workers were arrested and many injured, with one of the injured workers hospitalized due to severe head injury. Other workers, including pregnant women, were beaten by the police. The employer demanded the workers to return to work, and to elect staff representatives that would be acceptable to the employer. The detained workers were coerced by the police to sign an agreement giving up their rights. However, all workers refused to give in and were released 12 hours later.

Mr. Yau Tze Ken, Lecturer from the Department of Social Science, Hong Kong University stated that, “in the past, Mainland Police would normally intervene a strike only when the workers starting to set up road blockades. However, the Artigas workers were violently dispersed by the police even when they were only striking in the factory premises.  Furthermore, in recent months many labor rights activists have been detained by the police and expelled by their landlords, indicating the government is toughening its crackdown on the labor movement.”

Artigas workers lodged a complaint to the Guangdong Provincial Federation of Trade Unions.

On their way to complain, workers were repeatedly assaulted and intimidated.

Official union threatens petitioning workers

The workers continued to struggle by reporting the legal violations of Artigas to the Housing Fund Administration, the Social Security Bureau, the Shenzhen Municipal Federation of Trade Unions, the Complaints Receiving Office of the Municipal Government, and the the Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions. After days of persistence and actions, a worker called Ah En claimed they have successfully forced Artigas to repay all the Housing Fund in that were in arrears. However, during the process of petition, many workers were subject to violence and threats. On Jan. 14th, while on their way to the Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions, workers were chased and blocked by both police and officials of GDFTU president, Wang Jianping.

Social Security Bureau connives on non-payment Artigas workers’ pensions go down the drain

According to the ‘Social Security Law’ and regulations stipulated by the Shenzhen Government, it is the employers’ responsibility to enroll their employees in the social security program within the first month of employment, and to pay an equivalent of 13% of total salary as a pension insurance fee. If a corporation fails to make social insurance contribution, it breaks the social insurance law already. A fined interest would be charged for late overdue payment that is an additional payment of fines other than the payment of the social security premium. However, the Social Security Bureau claimed that they were unable to recover more than two years of pension insurance in arrears for the Artigas workers, as they lacked the judicial authority to do so under the Administrative Law. Thus, using a loophole in the Administrative Law, Artigas refused to repay the pension insurance contributions beyond two years.

On 24 December 2014, numerous unions and labour groups in Hong Kong protested at a UNIQLO store.

On 24 December 2014, numerous unions and labour groups in Hong Kong protested at a G2000 store.Artigas.

After a series of protests and actions, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the Retail, Commerce, and Clothing Industry General Union, and a number of Labor NGOs finally forced a response from Uniqlo and G2000. On Jan 20th, Uniqlo announced they had called on Artigas management to initiate negotiations with the workers and their representatives. They also stated that they respect the rights of the workers and would never condone any act of violence or retaliation. In an announcement made on Jan. 18th, Michael Tien – the Chairman of G2000, a member of the National People’s Congress, and and a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council – claimed that he had urged Artigas to resolve the dispute by means of negotiation. Meanwhile, his company terminated new procurement from Artigas as of early January, claiming that no further decisions would be made until the situation cleared up. However, in the view of HCKTU, it is not enough for G2000 to merely terminate orders to dissociate themselves from the dispute. If they are committed to carrying out their social responsibilities, they should act to ensure that Artigas workers are afforded their legal rights and receive all the pension insurance in arrears. The HKCTU will closely monitor the development of the situation.