Detention of Workers in Southern China

To:Primary Contacts, WRC Affiliate Colleges and Universities
From:Scott Nova
Date:March 21, 2008
Re:Detention of Workers in Southern China

Because there has been significant discussion within the university community recently regarding the labor rights environment in China, the WRC will be making an effort to provide our affiliates with updates on key issues and events affecting university code compliance in China. The following is such an update.

The past month has seen a disturbing pattern of behavior on the part of local government authorities in the Panyu District of Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, China, in response to a series of peaceful worker protests. Groups of workers protesting to demand their legal rights – primarily unpaid wages and benefits – have been met with armed riot police and have been subject to police detention without trial. One group of workers now faces criminal charges. Of particular significance and concern, the local government held a rally in the main square of Panyu District at which the arrested workers were forced to stand on a podium while their sentences were publicly announced. The apparent purpose of this event was to send the message that other workers who seek to engage in collective protest will face similar consequences. While none of these factories is a supplier of university logo goods, there are factories in Panyu District that do produce for one or more licensees, and the WRC is very concerned about the effect of these recent events on the ability of these workers to exercise their associational rights as protected by university codes of conduct.

The following is a summary of the events in question. The information was gathered by the WRC from media reports and other publicly available sources.

  • On February 13, 400 workers from the Lichang Footwear factory in Dashi Town began a collective procession to the Guangzhou municipal government offices after they returned from the Chinese New Year holiday to find that the factory had closed without paying final wages, which had been promised to employees after the holiday. The factory also reportedly failed to deposit payments into workers’ social insurance and other benefit funds despite these payments having been deducted from workers’ paychecks. Police stopped the procession and detained approximately 50 workers. Five of those workers were later formally arrested and detained on criminal charges. They remain in police custody although no hearing or trial has been held. They have reportedly been charged with illegal assembly, procession, and demonstration. They may soon face a criminal trial at which they could be formally sentenced to prison terms.
  • On February 20, workers at an unnamed handbag factory in Hualong Town held a demonstration outside the factory to protest low wages and underpayment for overtime work. Three workers were sentenced to ten days’ administrative detention on charges of disturbing factory operations. Administrative detention entails being held in police custody without a trial and sometimes without formal charge; the practice has been strongly criticized by international human rights bodies and it is widely reported that individuals facing such detention are frequently subject to physical mistreatment. It is not known whether these workers have been released or sentenced to further detention. 

  • On February 25, roughly 90 workers from an unnamed factory in Shiqi Town organized a protest march to the offices of the Panyu District government. The grievances of these workers have not been reported. Five of these workers were arrested and sentenced to administrative detention for terms ranging from 7 to 10 days. It is not known whether these workers have since been released or have been sentenced to further detention.
  • On February 28, a public rally was held at the main square in Panyu District for the purpose of announcing the sentences. The five workers from Lichang Footwear were required to stand on a podium while their sentences were read aloud. A local government official presiding over the event reportedly stated that workers who block traffic will not be protected by the law, even if their demands are reasonable and lawful. It is worth noting that it is difficult for a spontaneous protest involving dozens or hundreds of workers to avoid blocking at least some traffic, even if it was not workers’ intent to do so. While the use of police force in industrial disputes is not uncommon in China, the issuance of such a public announcement about the government’s actions to detain protest organizers is unusual. Local labor advocates are concerned by this “rally” and fear that it signals an intention on the part of the local government to increasingly crack down on workers who seek to defend their normative rights through collective protest.
  • On March 6, between 3,000 and 4,000 workers from a Casio Electronics factory in Panyu District went on strike to protest the factory’s announcement that the amount of workers’ monthly bonus would be significantly reduced at the same time that basic wages are being raised as mandated by local law. The protestors were reportedly dispersed by roughly 1,000 armed riot police, as well as other public security officials. There are some unconfirmed reports of workers being injured by the police. Some unknown number of workers was taken away by police and these individuals are believed to be in detention.

As you know, Chinese law prohibits workers from forming independent trade unions. In the absence of the option to address grievances by joining a union of their choice and engaging in collective bargaining, collective protest becomes a crucial avenue for workers to express grievances and press for basic legal protections. The efforts by the Panyu District government to discourage worker protests create even greater obstacles to any meaningful exercise by Chinese workers of the associational rights protected by university codes of conduct. At a time when some in the apparel industry are expressing optimism about labor rights progress in China, events like these give us pause.

The WRC has been in contact with a small number of key licensees sourcing logo apparel from Panyu District and has encouraged them to contact the local government to express concern. So far, Nike has indicated that it is working to do so. We will keep you posted on any further developments.

Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions or thoughts about this update.

Scott Nova
Worker Rights Consortium
5 Thomas Circle NW
Washington DC 20005
ph 202 387 4884
fax 202 387 3292
[email protected]