Labor Activists Detained Amid Civil Society Crackdown

China Labour Bulletin reports that several workers’ rights leaders have recently been detained by authorities in Guangzhou:

Two prominent labour activists have been formally detained by the authorities for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order,” in what appears to be a coordinated crackdown on labour groups in the city.

The director of the Panyu Workers’ Centre, Zeng Feiyang, and activist Zhu Xiaomei were placed under criminal in Panyu late on Friday night, family members have confirmed. Zhu Xiaomei has a one-year-old baby girl who has never been separated from her mother.

Three other local activists, He Xiaobo, Peng Jiayong and Deng Xiaoming have also been placed in detention. Several labour activists and workers were released after being questioned by police on Friday, while the fate of at least four others remains unknown as of Monday 7 December.

The crackdown comes at a time of escalating labour tension in Guangdong as factories in the traditional heartland of the Pearl River Delta close down or relocate, leaving workers with unpaid wages, no redundancy pay or social insurance contributions.

The number of strikes and protests in Guangdong recorded on China Labour Bulletin’s Strike Map has more than doubled in the last few months, increasing from 23 incidents in July to 52 in October and 56 in November. [Source]

These confirmed detentions have raised concerns that the Xi administration’s long-running crackdown on —which has so far targeted NGOsfree speech activism, and legal advocacy—may be spreading to the realm of independent labor organization amid a continued . The New York Times’ Michael Forsythe and Chris Buckley report:

When the economy in Guangdong, China’s richest and most populous province, was booming, the authorities apparently did not see labor activism as a threat. After strikes by workers at Honda auto parts plants in the province in 2010, for example, many workers won higher wages and benefits.

But now, with many factories moving to regions where lower wages prevail — or to other countries, like Vietnam — labor unrest is rising, said Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for the China Labor Bulletin, which promotes independent labor unions in China and tracks strikes and other labor protests nationwide. Local governments in Guangdong are often the focus of workers’ demands after factory bosses leave town, sometimes with wages and pension benefits in arrears, he said.

[…] “Clearly the rise in the number of protests and increase in labor activism has got the authorities worried,” Mr. Crothall said in a telephone interview. “They don’t know how to respond. And the only solution they can come up with is by cracking down on the people who are actually trying to help.”

One Chinese researcher on labor issues, who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely about the arrests, said that at least 16 activists had been detained or questioned and released in the crackdown on the Panyu Workers’ Center, or had disappeared with no information about their whereabouts. He said the detention of Mr. Zeng might have been a signal to workers not to get involved in labor movements outside the Communist Party-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions.

“They want to make an example of them for worker rights’ defense in the future — don’t get involved with these labor organizations,” the researcher said. “They realize that the economic slowdown and decline of industry is creating widespread bankruptcies and unemployment, and labor incidents will increase.” [Source]

A call to action released by Amnesty International today listed Zeng Feiyang, Zhu Xiaomei, Deng Xiaoming, and He Xiaobo as being in criminal detention without access to lawyers. Amnesty also noted that the whereabouts of Peng Jiayong, as well as three labor activists not mentioned in CLB’s original report—Meng Han, He Minghui, and Tang Jian—remain unknown:

This amounts to the biggest crackdown on the labour rights movement in the country for years, and comes amid rising industrial tension in Guangdong. Many factories in the region have closed or been forced to relocate, leaving workers with unpaid wages, no redundancy pay or social insurance contributions. This has led to an increasing number of protests and strikes in recent months. Panyu Workers’ Centre is one of the organizations that has been assisting workers by training them to engage in collective bargaining so that they can claim their lawful rights. [Source]

Also see a newly translated 2012 Southern Metropolis Daily profile of Zeng Feiyang, one of the most prominent of the recently detained worker’s rights activists, via libcom.org.