Consequences for workers who speak up

As female workers become more vocal about injustice on the job, they have also become more vulnerable during and after demonstrations. At another factory in Guangzhou, the Sumida Electronic Factory, workers started demonstrating for higher pay and social insurance in September, 2013, organizing their own union because the existing one was dominated by factory management. After more than a year of fighting, management agreed to give them social insurance and a democratically-elected union.

But the factory has also fired six protest leaders, and the remaining three were assigned to another plant where they had no work to do, meaning they earn no overtime. Liang Zhengxian, 39, from Guizhou Province, is one of the representatives who was reassigned. Every weekday, she said, she sat in the same room, isolated from other factory workers under the surveillance of a hidden camera. Her salary per month shrank from 3,000 yuan (US $480) to 1,500 yuan (US $240), because she used to earn bonuses.

After six months, Liang went to argue about her situation with some of the administrative staff. A human resources manager pulled her out of the office by force, leaving Liang with an injured ankle. Still, Liang says she does not want to quit her job. “Now I have already stepped forward as the leader, no matter how regretful I am, I will carry on with the fight,” she said. “I have no choice but move forward.” The owner of the factory, Chen Manhong, hung up when a reporter called and asked him about Liang’s situation.

Managers from other factories involved in these workers’ movements have been similarly difficult to reach. The phone at the Lide Shoe Factory’s management office was never answered. The Xinsheng Shoe Factory is closed. The official trade unions of Guangdong province and Dongguan city asked us to fax our inquiries to them, and did not respond to the faxes.

After Yang’s detention, and the Xinsheng Shoe Factory’s close, she said she was tired of the factory life. “I just want to go back home” and spend Chinese New Year there, she said in January. By early March, though, she was back at work in the manufacturing industry, this time in Shenzhen. “What else can I do if I don’t work in a factory?” she said.

The authors were embedded for six weeks at the Panyu Migrant Workers Center, a labor rights NGO in Guangdong Province, as part of an internship program set up by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of The University of Hong Kong.

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