Double-handed Policy on Labour NGOs in Shenzhen Called Suspicion on the Social Administration Reform
Labour NGOs continue to suffer from government harassment despite the seemingly relaxed policy on civil society initiated by the government of Guangdong province. Social organizations are supposed to benefit from the relaxation of registration to be introduced in full-scale to the whole province of Guangdong from 1 July 2012. NGOs whether they have been operating under business registration or without any registration before, can file for official registration with the Ministry of Civil Affairs instead of seeking the prior approval from a government or party organ as its supervisory organisation. At the same time, the All China Federation of Trade Unions, the Women’s Federation and the Communist Youth League have taken the lead to establish federations of labour, women and youth NGOs at the provincial and municipal level.
However a confusing message is being sent recently as a number of labour NGOs have reported about escalated and high-profile harassment directly and indirectly from the government. Some of them were asked to close down their operation in the eve of the relaxation policy. Given the timing and similarities of these harassments, it is hardly convincing to call these incidents coincidental.
By now 7 labour NGOs have been pressured to close down their workers’ centres and move out from their current locations. All of them have official business registration with the Administration of Industry and Commerce, a common means used to secure a legal status when none of them could register as a social organization under the stringent rules. Without exception, the 7 organisations were forced to close down as the tenancy contract of their offices was unilaterally terminated by the landlord who confessed to have been put under pressure of the government. The indirect harassment on the NGOs was preceded by direct threats by the local police, and inquisitions by multiple authorities[NOTE1]. The May Day celebrations of Dagongzhe Centre, one of the 7 organisations harassed, were dispersed by the local police calling it an illegal activity. 11 staff and workers were detained for eight hours and their office and computers were searched by the police. The 7 organisations, all based in Shenzhen, have independent access to international connections and network.
The harassment was at first believed to be local administration initiated based on the ‘policy inconsistence theory’ referring to the contradiction between the lower level government’s practices and that of the provincial government or central state’s. Local protectionism by the bureaucrats to safeguard the interests of the employers seems to offer an explanation to the harassment of NGOs such as Dagongzhe Centre and Shenzhen Chunfeng Labor Disputes Services Center whose advocacy on the Labour Contract Law in 2007 and call for a migrant workers’ association had alarmed the local business interests. They have track record of conflicts with the local village and township administration and the latter claimed to have been pressed by the employers who did not welcome the labour NGOs.
Yet the harassment of the 7 organisations, located in different areas but all based in Shenzhen in the eve before the opening of NGO registration on 1 July could hardly be a coincident. Simultaneous to the escalated pressure on the NGOs since this spring, the provincial federation of trade unions was forming a provincial labour NGO federation, the Federation of Social Service Organisations for Guangdong Workers (FSSOGW), theoretically open to all labour organizations within Guangdong province, including those in Shenzhen Municipality to join as members. Although none of the 7 organisations have joined the FSSOGW, these NGOs have prepared to file for official registration with the Ministry of Civil Affairs after the new policy becomes effective next week. Yet, they were told by the local ministry to wait till 1 July as the guidelines for enforcing the new policy had not been released yet. None of them expected the eviction.
Concomitantly, the Shenzhen government and the Municipal Federation of Trade Unions announced the plan in June to initiate direct election of the trade union officers and chairpersons in 163 enterprises within this year. Reiterating Shenzhen as the pioneer of both the economic and trade union reform back in 1986 with the first direct election of the trade union in Shekou Industrial Zone, it is not clear whether the municipal government of Shenzhen is playing a different tune from that of the provincial government, reinforcing the trade union as the only legitimate institutional actor in regulating labour issues.
Nevertheless, the recent harassment of the labour NGOs in Shenzhen has provoked questions about the double-handedness of the provincial and municipal government, undermining the confidence amongst the labour organizations and their worker supporters about the new policy. Below are the background and the recent harassment suffered by five labour NGOs based in Shenzhe[NOTE2].
Since its high-profile protests to the ITUC and the international labour community calling for support in the retaliatory attack against the founder of the Dagongzhe Centre, HUANG Qingnan in which Huang was stabbed by knife and suffered from disability in 2007, Dagongzhe Centre has been struggling under un-mitigated pressure from the local government in Shenzhen municipality. In January 2011, ITUC sent another letter to the Mayor of Shenzhen to follow up on the conditions of Huang and the continuous harassment and threats made by un-identified persons against the personal safety of the staff. ITUC asked the Shenzhen government to see that the remedial measures taken by the government in the aftermath of the assault case were not short-lived commitments.
Yet the Centre could not free itself from harassment this time coming indirectly through the landlord. In November 2011, the staff of Dagongzhe Centre was informed by the landlord of unilateral termination of the tenancy contract of the office which had another two years before expiry. While the landlord insisted that the claim was a commercial decision, he also confessed that he had been under pressure by the village administration and begged the staff of the Centre to leave the place. From then on, the centre’s activities had been disrupted, its publicity materials were destroyed and workers visiting the Centre were harassed. Refusing to quit, the staff received an ultimatum from the landlord in mid April this year to move out by the end the month, which was followed by cutting the water and electricity supply of the Centre in May.
In the meantime, the staff and more than 40 worker supporters of the Centre who had given their signatures in a petition letter to the government, have been running around the village administration and the district government office for negotiation. Letters were sent to the provincial and municipal government, the Mayor, the municipal federation of trade unions, and the All China Federation of Trade Unions in Beijing appealing for a consistent policy on labour NGOs while the Guangdong government is promoting the Social Administration Reform and relaxation on social organization. None of the appeals was answered. The staff argues that the Centre’s operation is legal under the business registration. The sympathetic workers insisted on maintaining the Centre’s operation despite the water and electricity cut.
On 1 May, the staff of Dagongzhe Centre were taken away by the police and detained for 8 hours in the middle of the May Day celebration they organised. The activities, which took place in two sites in the industrial district where the Centre was located, were disrupted by the police in less than hour, claiming the activities had not been approved by the municipal administration. Dagongzhe insisted that no disapproval notice had been issued against the celebration which they had filed to the municipal authority in prior for approval. In the first activity site, the activities were dispersed by the police and 6 staff and workers were taken to the police station for interrogation. In the second activity site, the staff of Dagongzhe called off the celebration shortly after it began. Nevertheless five of the staff were taken away by the police who went into the office, took pictures of the staff and threatened to confiscate all the flyers and pamphlets from the Centre, claiming them illegal publications. Taken to different police stations, the 11 staff and worker volunteers of the Centre, including organisers who are occupational injured workers, were detained from 5pm till midnight. They were questioned by the police, the pictures they had taken were deleted from the digital cameras and they were asked to sign a guarantee letter promising not to organise illegal activities before they were released. A staff and a worker volunteer were asked by the police to take their blood sample during the interrogation without giving explanation.
Last week, the staff and worker supporters held the last activity at Dagongzhe Centre ending the struggle to guard the centre for more than two months without water and electricity supply. Throughout the period, the municipal government and the trade union had not provided any support or explanation. The determination to re-open Dagongzhe Centre and seek legal recognition is prevalent amongst the staff and the supporters, although none of them is sure whether similar harassment will be employed against them again.
Shenzhen Chunfeng Labor Disputes Services Center
Shenzhen Chungfeng Labor Disputes Services Center was formed in 2005 in Shenzhen municipality under business registration. Before that, the founder, ZHANG Zhiyu had created the Shenzhen Migrant Workers’ Association (Preparation Committee) which had been operating without legal status since 2004. The Shenzhen Migrant Workers’ Association was the first civil society organization to name itself as an association for all migrant workers. After a year’s operation to provide para-legal aid, conduct researches on migrant workers and provide social services, the Preparation Committee launched a public signature campaign with other NGOs in 2006 calling the provincial Peoples’ Congress to repeal the financial charges of labour disputes arbitration. In the same year in November, the Preparation Committee was banned by the government for illegal operation without approved registration, despite the fact that the Preparation Committee had been applying for social organization registration with the Ministry of Civil Affairs and was rejected and ignored since the beginning. From then on, the call for a migrant workers’ association was dropped and Chunfeng continued to operate as a service providing organization for migrant workers. Yet its business registration status had not been renewed by the district Administration of Industry and Commerce since 2007. The latter refused to give the organization the legally required annual review, a necessary procedure for renewal of the registration every year. Chunfeng took the district Administration of Industry and Commerce to court in December 2010 for administrative review which resulted in a conciliatory agreement with the latter, as well as a renewal of the registration. In 2010 a branch organization was established in Dongguan, followed by the founding of Shi-Dai-Nu-Gong, another branch focusing on women migrant workers in Shenzhen in 2011. In May this year, Chunfeng was prepared to launch another public signature campaign to call the provincial people’s Congress to regulate agency work. However since February, the organization had been subject to indirect harassment coming from the landlord who unilaterally terminated the tenancy contract of Chunfeng’s office in Shenzhen before expiry and demanded the organisation to move out immediately. Similar measures of threats such as termination of water and electricity supply were used as in the case of Dagongzhe Centre. By now Chunfeng has closed down its site in Shenzhen and has no office to maintain its operation yet.
Shenzhen Yuan Dian Labor Service Centre
Yuan Dian Centre was formed in 2007 under business registration in Shenzhen. The centre provides general labour services to workers such as legal consultation, training and social services etc. The centre has been subjected to inquisitions from various government departments since March this year. Under pressure, the landlord asked the organisation to move out and terminated the lease contract before it expired. The centre at the original site has closed down and the staff are seeking for a new site to re-open the centre.
Based in Shenzhen, Worker Online which is also known as QingCao, suffers from exactly the same harassment as the others. The centre was visited by different government departments for inquisition in May this year. Water and electricity supply was cut by the landlord to force the centre to close down. Worker Online and its staff are operating without an office at the moment. Worker Online is a worker service centre registered as a branch under a business consultation company based in Shenzhen. The latter engages with multi-national companies in corporate social responsibility programs and provides management and worker training to their suppliers in China, while Worker Online releases investigation reports on working conditions in the suppliers of the multi-national companies.
Shi-Dai-Nu-Gong is a labour organization formed on 8 March 2010 in Shenzhen municipality. The co-founders of the organization were five production line workers from an electronics factory who were chosen by Time magazine as People of the Year of 2009 to symbolize the Chinese workers as a stabilizing force in the global economy. The organization pledges to give a voice to migrant women workers on their social and labour rights, especially on sexual harassment, occupational as well as women’s safety and health issues.
On 7 June, officers from the Administration of Industry and Commerce came to Shi-Dai-Nu-Gong to ask the centre to close down or move out from the current site for “operation without a legal registration”. The staff of the centre felt prejudiced for they were forced to operate without registration as the local Ministry of Civil Affairs had never approved their application as a social organisation. Nor could they register as a business entity based on the reason that the Director of the organization, XIAO Hongxia had violated the one-child policy. According to Xiao, the staff’s high hopes about the relaxation of control over labour NGOs after 1 July is now tattered, fearing that it is a double policy to cover up more stringent control over the independent NGOs.
[NOTE1]In the name of routine review, these organizations were inquired by the Administration of Taxation, the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the Administration of Industry and Commerce, the Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau etc within a month before they were forced to move out from these present locations.
The other two NGOs which were asked to close down recently does not want to be named. The information is based on interviews and written accounts of the concerned organizations and news reports.