Growing labour conflicts: more strikes due to Hong Kong enterprises’ labour violations
Police brutality against the labour movement: strikers physically assaulted in factories
In the second year since the establishment of its database to monitor Hong Kong-owned enterprises’ conduct in China, the HKCTU collected documents and reports from media, social media and other labour organizations on various collective labour actions that took place between May 2014 and April 2015. At least 25 cases of workers’ collective rights-defending actions involving Hong Kong capital (a 40% growth compared with the previous year, between May 2013 and April 2014) are identified. 20 of these cases took place in the Pearl River Delta and more than 90% involved strikes. Nearly 30% of cases came from listed companies in Hong Kong. Almost 70% of the cases were triggered by the Hong Kong-owned enterprises’ violations of the Labour Contract Law. 60% of the cases involved “cut and run”, whereby workers received either little or no compensation and were left with wage arrears when the factories closed.
Our major findings show a growing trend in labour actions and various violations of labour legislation, involving suppliers of numerous multi-national companies. Artigas Clothing & Leatherwear Company in Shenzhen, a supplier of UNIQLO and G2000, for example, was found to have not been paying workers’ pension premiums and housing funds for many years, resulting in many women workers retiring without a pension. Due to this, as well missing overtime wages, over 1,000 workers launched a strike in early December 2014. This case illustrates the multinational companies’ failure to address the labour violations of their suppliers and that labour exploitation remains a severe issue.
Enterprises gave false wages slips so as to pocket social security premiums
The findings also revealed that about 30% of the labour conflicts were due to missing social security premiums. One of the cases involved Foundation Industrial (Far East) Ltd. A strike broke out at its Shanghai Gaojian Garment Ltd. in Pudong New Area of Shanghai on 16 October 2014. Workers demanded the enterprise repay their two-months of missing wages and their missing pension premiums of many months. Ms Wang, a worker explained, “the enterprise had stopped paying for our pension premium since November last year. Yet, it always deducted the premiums from our wages. We workers have very low wages, how can we continue to live like this?”
When over 1,000 workers staged a road blockade outside the factory, hundreds of police and auxiliary police officers were deployed to violently disperse the workers. Many workers were injured and detained. One worker reflected angrily, “We were trying to get back our hard-earned money but were subjected to physical assaults and arbitrary detentions. It is outrageous! Is this the People’s Police’s way of defending its citizens?” Yet, the Hong Kong factory owner refused to address the problem and declared bankruptcy on 21 October 2014, making it impossible for the workers to make their claims. Foundation Industrial (Far East) Ltd. is a recidivist in this regard. In August 2014, workers at its subsidiary Yunfu Gaojian Garment Ltd in Guangdong Province also launched a strike as they were not paid in July.
There were also missing contributions to social security premiums at Artigas Clothing & Leatherwear Company in Shenzhen, a supplier of UNIQLO and G2000, and at Huixin Precision Components Co. Ltd., a supplier of Sony and Panasonic.
Strikers assaulted in the factory and detained for “sabotaging production and business operation”
It is a worrying trend that workers are increasingly being threatened or assaulted by police whilst defending their rights. After the brutal assaults against workers at Artigas (detailed reports are available in the previous quarterly), workers at Xinsheng Shoe Factory of Panyu District, Guangzhou, jointly-owned by Hong Kong, Macaoese and Taiwanese capital were arbitrarily detained for “sabotaging production and business operation”. Workers started a strike on 16 September 2014, to protest against its relocation without consulting the workers, missing social security premiums over the years, absence of paid annual leave and statutory holidays and unpaid overtime wages. In late August 2014 when workers discussed their unfair treatment at the factory, managerial staff ridiculed them saying, “even if you produce more products, the company will only pay you the legal minimum wages for Panyu District. You can stay and quit as you wish.” Such a nasty attitude outraged the workers and they demanded to negotiate with the management. Yet, the employer ignored their lawful demands and called the police to threaten the workers, leading to the strike in September.
The struggle lasted for three months. Yet, workers were either turned down or suppressed by the employer, police and the authorities at the provincial, municipal, street and community committee levels. On 22 September 2014, 116 workers petitioned the Labour Inspection Team (a similar department to the Labour Department in Hong Kong and whose responsibility it is to handle labour disputes). The Labour Inspection Team sided with the employer and forced the workers to drop their demands, threatening them with prison terms. During those three months, 14 workers were detained and one of the workers’ representatives, Yang Dongsheng, suffered from a serious liver disease and needed daily medication. However the Dongguan Police Station strictly refused his wife’s request to visit and bring him medicine. Among the detained workers, seven faced the criminal charge of “sabotaging production and business operation”, and were released on bail after some 20 days of detention.
Violence to silence labour organizations in recent months
Since the second half of 2014, the Chinese Government has been frequently questioning and monitoring foreign funding, putting enormous pressure on NGOs, especially those which are working on “sensitive issues” such as labour rights. On 16 June 2014, the “Administrative methods of social organizations in Guangzhou City” was adopted and stated that “a social organization with ‘major funding from foreign organizations’ should be considered as ‘a branch, a representative organization of a foreign organization, or an organization which is effectively controlled and administrated by a foreign organization in this city’ and therefore, its registration should be revoked.” When “a revoked social organization continues to operate as a social organization”, it was to be treated as “an illegal social organization”. These regulations led to a loud outcry from the NGOs and were later removed from the finalized “Administrative methods of social organizations in Guangzhou City”. Currently China’s proposed law on foreign NGOs is undergoing a public consultation. This law attempts to tighten control over foreign NGOs and their partners, leaving little room for them to operate.
In fact, labour organizations have suffered from violence and evictions since 2012. In recent months, physical assaults or police harassment have been taking place frequently, making their survival even more difficult. On 2 April 2015, Peng Jiayong, Liu Shaoming, and Deng Xiaoming, volunteers at the Haige Workers’ Services Centre were forcibly abducted to Yakou Police Station in Zhongshan City by some 30 self-proclaimed policemen and unidentified persons. Deng and Liu were released after eight hours in custody and Peng was continuously attacked by the police officers throughout the detention time, resulting in many injuries in his loin, ribs, back of his head, right leg and other parts of his body. The police refused his repeated requests for medical treatment.
In the past year, the local governments and Hong Kong-owned enterprises have been working closely together to further violently suppressed strikes. Ironically, the number of strikes continues to rise under such harsh conditions, which clearly shows that crackdowns fail to resolve labour conflicts and lead to deteriorating labour relations. The only way out is equal negotiation between employees and employers.