By Jenny Chan
Last month students and recent graduates from more than a dozen mainland Chinese universities turned out to provide solidarity support for workers of Jasic Technology.
The activists included students from Peking University, Tsinghua University, Nanjing University, and Sun Yat-sen University. They wore T-shirts with the slogan “unity is power” printed in bold red.
They produced videos of speeches and peaceful demonstrations in front of the Jasic factory in the Pingshan District of Shenzhen City, a key node of globalized production in South China. They tweeted open letters and blogs and photos via social media.
In response, the management of Jasic, a private company listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange, retaliated against workers who have been trying to establish a democratic trade union since May, and refused immediate reinstatement of dismissed workers, triggering waves of protests and campaigns.
At the time of writing, 14 workers were still being detained by local authorities, and last week police raided a guesthouse where about 50 student supporters had been staying, crushing the worker-student coalition.
The conflicts between workers and management over punitive fines, wage deductions, and non-payment of social security benefits at Jasic are not an isolated case. Facing infringement of rights and harsh treatment, aggrieved workers have resisted in numerous individual and collective forms.
In 1982 China removed the right to strike from its constitution and the only official union organization is the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, an integral part of the government. With no leadership from the union, workers in places like Jasic have taken independent actions to defend their legal rights and interests.
Government statistics indicate that, in 1996, 48,121 labour disputes (including individual and collective cases) were accepted for arbitration, involving 189,120 people nationwide. The incidence of arbitrated labour disputes, along with mounting protests, has been growing rapidly.
In the global economic crisis of 2008, when millions of workers were laid off, the number of cases skyrocketed to 693,465 – nearly double that of the previous year – involving more than 1.2 million workers across the country.
Following a brief decline, labour dispute cases have shot up annually, reaching an unprecedented 813,859 cases in 2015, according to the China Labour Statistical Yearbook.
In addition to filing cases through dispute resolution mechanisms, workers have sought to strengthen their associational power to better protect themselves. Jasic workers had submitted their written intent to form a union in accordance with China’s Trade Union Law. They had prepared to engage in dialogue with management.
On August 1, under mounting pressure, Jasic executives quickly set up a union preparatory committee. From 2005 when the company was founded, Jasic, like many other companies, had refused to recognize workers’ fundamental rights to unionize.
On August 20, Jasic called the first meeting to “elect” nine union committee members. How were the elections run? Who were the union chair and committee members? Apparently the Jasic management has taken over organizing at the workplace level.
For nearly two months now, a core group of university students, along with tens of thousands of fellow students from all over the country, have been supporting Jasic workers in their struggles.
This young cohort was born in the 1990s and early 2000s, when China accelerated its opening to the world and privatized its industries to enhance “flexibility” of work and employment in the market.
In and through self-organized study groups, internships, and waged work, the student activists understand the need for more progressive legal reforms and a fairer share of economic gains for those who produce them.
The effective use of digital media to present a united worker-student voice, despite removal and blockage of the content by Chinese authorities, has drawn attention from academics and the wider public at home and abroad.
In recent years, a young generation of migrant factory workers at Foxconn (Shenzhen), Honda (Foshan), and Yue Yuen (Dongguan) have staged numerous strikes and protests in a bid to democratize their respective company unions.
The workers’ demand for higher wages and better benefits are among the top priorities. As capital moves from coastal Guangdong to interior provinces to tap into cheaper labour and more abundant land, conflicts over unpaid wages and arbitrary dismissals may well increase.
University students share concerns about fair labour in an age of contracting and temporary work. The battle for social and economic justice from the bottom up at Jasic and other workplaces has written a new page in contemporary Chinese society.
Jenny Chan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University