For China's labour activists, an uncertain future

June 29, 2017

China's labour activists work out of passion, with little or no pay, and expose themselves to increasingly higher risks as Beijing cracks down on civil society organizations.

Beijing (dpa) - When Deng Guilian first met in person the man who would become her husband, in a train station in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, she thought he was skinny and not overly handsome or cool. But he was a nice, educated man, who was dedicated to helping China's factory workers enjoy better conditions.

Deng, a factory worker herself, knew how badly help was needed.

After a decade of working as a labour activist in China, Hua was arrested last month together with two colleagues while they were probing factories that made shoes for Ivanka Trump and other international brands. 

The three men were released on bail Wednesday night, a person close to the case told dpa. The men are allowed to return home but are required to report to local police every time they leave their hometowns.

Their release - which had been requested by human rights activists around the world, as well as the US State Department - might be final. A trial is pending, but it may not take place, as has happened before with detained activists whose cases were not considered serious by Chinese authorities.  

Their case illustrates, however, the increasingly tough environment for Chinese labour activists, who operate in a "grey area," with a high exposure to risks and little or no pay.

Beijing is closing in on civil society organizations even as workers' conditions are beginning to improve, labour NGOs say.

Hua and his colleagues, Li Zhao and Su Heng, were working on contract for China Labor Watch, a New York-based non-profit organization. 

Footage and pictures the men took while working undercover in two factories owned by Huajian Group reveal low pay, excessive overtime and abusive treatment, the NGO alleges. Workers toil 15 hours per day, receive only one or two days off each month, and are sometimes forced to work overtime, China Labor Watch says.

Yet activists themselves "barely make any profit from this type of investigation," Li Qiang, China Labor Watch's founder and executive director, told dpa earlier this month. While the NGO reported an officer salary of almost 98,500 dollars in 2015, Chinese activists on the ground work "out of personal conviction and passion," Li said. 

After Deng and Hua married, she asked him not to talk about his work at home. She knew he put in long hours to help make small improvements for labourers.

"He has always been fascinated with his work, but his income was very low, especially at the beginning," she said.

So when their daughter, Chen Chen, who is now 7, was born, she asked Hua to get a different job. He started a small business, but Deng could see his heart was still in the old job.

"After about half a year, our small business didn't go very well, and we lost tens of thousands of yuan (thousands of dollars)," Deng said.

"So I told him that he should go back to his job because that is what he likes. We can live a simple life. Since then, I've supported him without any doubt. He works there, and I take care of the kids at
home," she added. 

The family has been supplementing its income with compensation from a house that got demolished in Deng's hometown and with her earnings from seasonal jobs she takes as a supermarket clerk.

Activists often function in a "grey area," said Keegan Elmer, a labour researcher for China Labour Bulletin, a long-standing NGO in Hong Kong. Elmer wouldn't comment on the legal aspects of this particular case.

China Labor Watch has staff members in Shenzhen, but is not legally registered in China, Li said, which complicates its legal standing in the country.

In the summer of 2015, Beijing began a sweeping crackdown on human rights lawyers and labour activists, detaining or interrogating hundreds of activists and their relatives. Since then, the activists' status has become even more uncertain, in a country that lacks an independent justice system.

Those who get detained and are later released cannot resume working with their non-profits, but many "continue to operate to this day, and continue to be connected through loose networks," Elmer said.

"Most activists know that the crackdown on organizations does not change the broader labour problems in China, nor does it prevent workers themselves from organizing as they have for years, and will continue to do with increasing capacity in the future." 

China Labour Bulletin argues that Chinese workers have in fact "made substantial gains" in recent years through individual strikes and protests, which have forced factory bosses to the bargaining table and prompted changes in labour legislation and other government policies. 

Before knowing what the outcome of Hua's detainment would be, Deng told dpa she fully supported her husband - despite having been through stressful weeks of questioning and surveillance herself.

"I think what he does is meaningful," she said.

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