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Agents of Change or Status Quo? Labor NGOs in South China Darcy Pan DOI: 10.5876/9781607326311.c005 Workers’ Collective Action When I started my fieldwork in the office of Green Grass Workers’ Service Center (hereafter Green Grass),1 a labor NGO located in Guangdong Province, one thing that caught my attention was a bright red banner hanging next to six framed photos to the left of the entrance. The photos showed past activities and outreach services of the organization with workers. In the middle of the banner ran the following text: “Workers’ Solidarity Has Power, Collective Bargaining Yields Results” (工人团结有力量, 集体坛判有成果). On the upper right-hand side it said: “To Green Grass Workers’ Service Center,” and on the lower left it said: “From 199 Workers of Bao Han Electronics Factory.” It was dated September 2012. Zhang Guoqi, a senior staff member at Green Grass, proudly told me the story of these workers and said it was their very first successful case assisting the workers in collective action. In 2011, a few dozen workers at Bao Han Electronics Factory wanted to recover social insurance payments their employer had not paid for years 136 Darcy Pan and demanded the employer start making payments to the social insurance system for them. The social insurance program places the responsibility on the employer, requiring it register for participation and make regular contributions , both on the part of the workers (deducted from wages) and of the firm (as a share of payroll).2 One labor activist in Hong Kong told me that one of the main problems of labor protection in China is not that there is no legal framework to regulate labor relations but that labor policies and regulations are unevenly implemented at the local level, resulting in labor protection measures that are seldom enforced. The issue of social insurance is one such example. The Bao Han workers heard about Green Grass and sought the group’s advice. Green Grass told them that to recruit as many workers as possible, the workers needed to “make a list of things that need to be addressed in the factory. It is not very smart to just have one issue [of demanding social insurance payments],” said Zhang Guoqi. After several meetings with Green Grass, the workers listed four things they wanted their employer to address: 1. All workers should receive a copy of their employment contracts; 2. Workers should be paid high-temperature allowances; 3. Workers should be entitled to annual paid leave; 4. The employer would make payments to social insurance. With the additional issues now included, the initial group of workers managed to mobilize their coworkers to participate in collective action. Nearly two months later, the number of workers on board had increased from 38 to 128, and in the end 199 workers came together to participate in the nearly year-long battle of asserting their rights and claiming their entitlements. Through this process, Green Grass helped the workers organize and elect thirteen workers’ representatives whose primary task is to communicate on behalf of the workers with the management. They exchange information and participate in negotiations with management. Green Grass also helped the workers set up a solidarity fund with contributions from each worker involved in the collective action. Zhang Guoqi explained that the solidarity fund is used to cover expenses that may occur during the workers’ collective action—for example, those related to dealing with labor authorities. The workers decide how much each worker should contribute to the fund.3 137 Agents of Change or Status Quo? “It was a very long process and the management treated the workers very badly,” said Zhang Guoqi, citing one incident that seriously damaged the morale of the workers. “During their negotiation with the management, two workers’ representatives were arrested and detained by the police. They were accused of instigating the workers to cause disturbance at work and illegally detaining the manager,” said Zhang Guoqi. The workers were demanding a response to their requests but the manager refused so the workers gathered outside the manager’s office and waited. The standoff lasted for two days. When the police came, the two workers’ representatives were taken away and detained for 25 days. Three days into their detention, the two workers’ representatives were dismissed by the factory because, according to the management, they failed to show up at work. Zhang Quoqi stressed that the arrest was a turning point that brought the workers even closer and inspired more people, including some lawyers...


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