WRC Requests University Licensees to Call on Chinese Government to End Crackdown on Labor Rights Advocates

To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Scott Nova and Ben Hensler
Date:March 10, 2016
Re:WRC Requests University Licensees to Call on Chinese Government to End Crackdown on Labor Rights Advocates

The WRC has asked top university licensees sourcing collegiate apparel from Guangdong, China, to voice concern to that country’s government regarding a current crackdown on independent labor rights advocates in the province.

The WRC has written to adidasNikeHanesbrands (owner of licensees Gear for Sports and Knights Apparel), and VF (owner of licensees JanSport and Majestic) regarding the ongoing detention and criminal prosecution of prominent labor rights advocates who were arrested on December 3, 2015, in a widely-reported government crackdown in Guangdong, China. This situation requires the attention of university licensees because Guangdong is a global export center for garment and footwear manufacturing, with substantial production of university logo goods, and the individuals who have been detained are some of the province’s leading independent civil society voices advocating for labor rights compliance.

On December 3, 2015, Chinese police carried out a series of surprise raids on the homes and offices of staff members and volunteers working with several local labor rights groups in Guangdong, and held at least 21 persons for questioning. Six prominent labor rights advocates who were among those held were then placed under ongoing criminal detention.

Two of the six detained labor rights advocates were subsequently released on bail, but expelled from the province. Of the remaining four detainees, three associated with a civil society organization called the Panyu Workers Center, Mr. Zeng Feiyang, Ms. Zhu Xiaomei, and Mr. Meng Han, have been charged with the criminal offense of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order,” which carries a potential sentence of life imprisonment.

The fourth detainee, Mr. He Xiaobo of the Nanfeiyan Social Work Service Center, has been charged with “misappropriation of occupational funds,” which also carries a potential life sentence. As of today, three of these labor rights advocates, Zeng Feiyang, Meng Han, and He Xiaobo, are still detained. The fourth, Zhu Xiaomei, was released on bail on February 1, 2016. The criminal charges against all four are still pending.

Since Chinese labor unions are controlled at the national and provincial level by the Chinese government, and at the workplace level by factory owners, independent civil society organizations like the Panyu Workers Center and the Nanfeiyan Social Work Service Center play an especially vital role in helping Chinese workers resolve labor disputes, secure compensation and treatment for occupational injury and illness, obtain legally owed severance payments and social security contributions, and otherwise defend their rights under the law.

However, they have been targeted by government authorities, in retaliation for this activity, and hit with detentions, evictions, and administrative harassment.

The current persecution of independent civil society organizations that advocate on behalf of garment and footwear workers in Guangdong not only violates the associational rights of the advocates targeted, but effectively deprives workers throughout the province of the assistance of these groups, which is vital if workers are to achieve a greater level of respect for their rights – and thereby restricts the freedom of association of these workers, as well. Freedom of association is a core principle of international labor and human rights conventions and of the codes of conduct of both universities and licensees themselves. 

Many university codes of conduct also require that licensees, when operating in countries like China where independent unions are barred by law, take action to ensure that respect for associational rights is achieved to the extent that it can be. A common code provision states that licensees, when sourcing “[i]n countries where law or practice conflicts with [the university’s] labor standards,” are required to “take effective actions . . . to achieve the maximum possible compliance.”

The WRC has requested that adidas, Nike, Hanesbrands, and VF act in accordance with these obligations by: (1) expressing concern about the current repression of labor rights advocates, in writing, to the Chinese government; and (2) requesting the immediate end of the detention of, and the dismissal of all charges against, the labor rights advocates, Zeng Feiyang, Meng Han, He Xiaobo and Zhu Xiaomei.

The WRC received an immediate response to this request from VF, which stated that it would be sending such a letter in the very near future. The WRC looks forward to receiving confirmation of this action by VF, as well as similarly favorable responses from adidas, Nike, and Hanesbrands, as well.  We will provide you with further updates as this situation develops and as additional responses from these licensees are received.

As always, please let us know if you have any questions about this issue.

Scott Nova 
Worker Rights Consortium 
5 Thomas Circle NW, 5th Floor 
Washington DC 20005 
ph  202 387 4884 
fax 202 387 3292