Financial Times: Wu trial tests China’s tolerance of strikes

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

February 20 2014

By Tom Mitchell in Shenzhen

If Wu Guijun is sentenced to five years in a Chinese prison, it will be in part because he allegedly led workers in chanting “Long live the Communist party” and singing “Socialism is good”, a patriotic anthem.

The irony will be of little comfort to Mr Wu, 41, who stands accused of “gathering a crowd and disrupting public order” during a labour protest in southern Guangdong province last May.
In a court hearing on Monday, attended by the FT, the prosecution said his chanting and singing proved that he had organised a march by more than 200 workers to a district government office.

“We did not organise any drastic actions,” Mr Wu told the court. “Our role was to act as a bridge between the workers and government departments.”

Public order offences, which can lead to a maximum five-year prison sentence in China, have been routinely used by the authorities in a long-running crackdown on legal activists such as Xu Zhiyong, who was convicted in January in China’s highest profile political trial since 2009.
But there are growing concerns that the increasing use of these charges in political cases is now also being seen in the labour arena.

Some fear the prosecution of Mr Wu in Shenzhen, the manufacturing centre bordering Hong Kong, could mark the end of a period of relative tolerance enjoyed by China’s worker movement, which erupted four years ago with a series of industrial actions at Japanese-invested car and auto parts factories.

“No one [in China] knows when they step across the line and it becomes a criminal case,” said Monina Wong of the International Trade Union Confederation. “That’s why this case is so important. It shows where the line is.”

Mr Wu and his colleagues wanted government help in securing compensation after their furniture factory boss announced plans to move his operation to a cheaper location inland – a common occurrence since the global financial crisis. The march on May 23 2013 allegedly disrupted traffic.

In addition to Mr Wu’s case, 12 security guards at a government hospital in Guangdong’s capital, Guangzhou, were tried in January on public order charges for a protest they staged in August. The verdict is still pending in that case, which is also unusual for the number of defendants involved.

China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based worker rights group, has documented some 1,200 Chinese strikes since the summer of 2011. “There was a noticeable increase in police interventions in the second half of 2013,” CLB said in its latest annual report on China’s worker movement, released on Thursday.

“Local governments are now taking a tougher stance against worker protests.” In the second half of 2013, CLB tracked 78 incidents of police involvement in strikes, of which 32 resulted in arrests but not necessarily formal prosecutions.

Mr Wu, elected as one of eight “worker representatives” during the factory dispute, denied organising the march, saying it happened more or less spontaneously. According to his former co-workers, the factory did not have a union.

Under China’s 2008 labour law companies are required to permit the establishment of chapters affiliated with the state-sanctioned All China Federation of Trade Unions.

“Wu Guijun read books on the labour law and helped us fight for compensation,” said Gong Shengkun, one of four factory workers who will testify on Mr Wu’s behalf.

Mr Wu, a slight man with thick glasses, nodded and raised his cuffed hands in a quick greeting to Mr Gong and the three other witnesses as police officers marched him into court on Monday.

Like Mr Wu’s family, who were also in attendance, they have not seen their elected representative since he was detained. Though technically innocent until proven guilty, Mr Wu sported a prison haircut and uniform.

“The boss was adamant and initially said there would be no compensation for moving the factory,” said Li Chunyun, a legal assistant who advised the workers. “He said it was non-negotiable.” The factory owner could not be reached for comment.

Government officials later brokered a “compromise” settlement under which Mr Wu’s colleagues were asked to accept just 20 per cent of the compensation they were legally entitled to, according to Duan Yi, a lawyer defending both Mr Wu and the hospital security guards in Guangzhou.

“The government isn’t adapting to the worker movement, which is a natural response to the development of China’s market economy,” Mr Duan said. “Government officials only want workers to listen to them.”

“I know government officials too well,” he added. “They say all the right things on television, but they say one thing and do another. They simply like factory bosses more than they do workers. The bosses give them red envelopes [cash gifts].”

The district government officials involved in Mr Wu’s factory dispute could not be reached for comment.

Mr Wu’s trial is scheduled to resume next week.

Additional reporting Wan Li in Shenzhen

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