A group of labour activists held in detention in Guangdong for more than a month have been subjected to a vicious smear campaign in China’s state-run media. The chief target of the campaign has been the director of the Panyu Workers’ Centre Zeng Feiyang, and in particular his role in the Lide shoe factory dispute last year.
Many of the Lide workers, as well as other workers who have benefited from the work of the Panyu Centre, have now spoken out in defence of Zeng and his colleagues: They present a completely different picture from that in the official media.
Lide workers on strike December 2014. Workers’ photograph posted on Weibo
The workers recalled a meeting at a restaurant banqueting hall in Guangzhou back in December 2014 when hundreds of Lide workers gathered to discuss their dispute with factory managers over relocation plans, layoff compensation and the social insurance payments still outstanding.
Zeng showed up at the meeting and talked with several worker representatives, going through the negotiation skills they needed to use and stressing their legal entitlements. In a speech to the assembled workers Zeng said: “All the representatives have been very brave and strong, they did not back down when confronted by the factory managers, let’s applaud them!”
Zeng had attended hundreds of meetings just like this over the last 15 years and was widely acknowledged as one of the most experienced and trustworthy labour activists in the Guangzhou region. In the last few years, the demand for his services had been increasing almost daily as China’s manufacturing industry slowed and hundreds of thousands of workers faced the prospect of being laid off without proper compensation or social security payments.
Indeed, since the detention of Zeng, two Panyu staff members, Zhu Xiaomei and Meng Han, and four other activists, the number of labour disputes in the region has continued to rise and local government officials are at a loss as how to resolve the problem. Instead, the authorities seem intent on vilifying those who were actually helping. The state news agency Xinhua, for example, accused the detained activists of “embezzlement,” and “inciting crowds to disrupt public order,” charges that the workers say are ridiculous.
Song Jiahui, one of the Lide representatives said the workers had benefited greatly from Zeng’s knowledge and experience of collective-bargaining. Song stated that Zeng; “did not charge us any money; instead he treated us to meals and even paid for some minor expenses such as printing.”
“How could Zeng get compensation from us as reported in that article? The factory owner transferred the compensation payments to our bank accounts directly, in what way could he get money from us?” she added.
Song emphasized that rather than inciting workers to disrupt social order, Zeng and the other staff at the Panyu Centre had ensured that the workers always acted within the law: “Zeng always told us to defend our rights in a legal way, not by blocking roads or smashing machines,” she said.
Before meeting Zeng, we knew nothing about our legal entitlements and how to get them. Zeng also taught us how to negotiate with factory management. It wasn’t him that ‘incited’ us to strike. We wanted to fight for our own rights. We united because of one common demand: to get our compensation.
Two other Lide representatives, Zeng Xiaoqing and Zhang Guihua, also spoke up for Zeng and his staff. Zeng Xiaoqing admitted that “I had no idea about my rights before knowing him, no one ever told me except him.”
Zhang Guihua added: “There was no way we could get our compensation without Zeng and the Panyu Centre. They are all nice people, totally unlike the picture painted by Xinhua.”
Ms Kai, a former worker at the Tongxin jewellery factory in Foshan who had also been helped by Zeng said. “I don’t think what Xinhua said is correct as Zeng never took any of our money. I met him once and he told us we should have legitimate demands and not to illegal things like blocking roads.”
Tongxin workers’ representative Zhu Xinhua, concurred: “Zeng told us how to negotiate with factory managers and this guided us throughout the whole process. He never mentioned anything related to money, and for us workers, we don’t really care about where his funding comes from: what matters to us is who can give us practical help,” he said.
Looking ahead, Zhu predicted that without the Panyu Centre and other labour organizations in Guangzhou that can really help the workers there would be two possible outcomes:
Workers will either silently swallow insult and humiliation or alternatively they will do much more extreme things such as blocking roads in order to get back their money since there will be no one to tell them what they should and should not do and how to fight for their rights legally.