CDB Editorial: The Advance and Retreat of Labor NGOs

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This editorial addresses the troubling harassment of labor NGOs in Guangdong during the summer and fall of 2012. Even as the regulatory environment for service-provision NGOs improves, NGOs engaged in rights-protection and advocacy continue to face a challenging environment under China’s new leadership. This editorial goes further though, chastising some labor NGOs for pursuing their own self interest, by chasing after international funding, rather than collaborating to address the larger problems facing workers in China. It calls for the government to create a more welcoming regulatory environment that would promote the healthy development of labor NGOs, which fill an important need, rather than repress them.

On September 3, 2012 in the face of closure, the Beijing Tongxin Shiyan School (北京同心实验学校) had its start-of-term ceremony

“On August 14, volunteers in the Chaoyang District Power Supply Bureau performed checks on the school’s electrical wiring for second time,” “Bailiffs from the Dongcheng District Court paid a special visit to help train our school’s standard bearer”…On the first day of class, the school handed out pictures and illustrations with characters such as “joyous” and “gratitude,” all expressing the prevailing sentiments. After three months of dialogue, lobbying, pressure, and resistance, the Tongxin School gained a measure of victory. Meanwhile, Chaoyang District’s three other schools for migrant children have been closed and relocated. These pictures reveal the comprehensive support for the Tongxin School, as well as the degree of emotion felt for its students. In these last few months, founder Sun Heng and his team relied on their collective work experiences, as well as a strong support and resource network, to reveal cases like this to a wider audience.

No matter how troubling the difficulties faced by Beijing’s migrant children are, the eviction notices faced by Shenzhen’s labor organizations are even more complex. In the summer and autumn months, these labor organizations have become a hot topic in both the internet and print media.

On September 9, 20 prominent scholars and media representatives called on the Guangdong Provincial Government, the Shenzhen Municipal Party Committee and the Shenzhen government to immediately cease the unprovoked suppression of labor NGOs, to promptly enact new legislation, and, by following the rule of law, reform Guangdong’s social management and further develop its social organizations. The government has yet to issue a response. One author and two signatories of the open letter have undertaken an independent six-day investigation of Shenzhen’s labor organizations that ended September 19, and will be issuing their report soon.

Since February of 2012, over 10 Shenzhen labor NGOs have been subjected to investigations from various local government bureaus. Their landlords have used a variety of reasons to cancel  their leases and demand they move out. Some have even faced forcible removal. This is not the first time labor NGOs have been forced to move, with other instances occurring as recently as 2007 and 2008. However, as of last year, the Guangdong provincial government has proposed some innovative approaches to social management, and led the country in easing registration and public fundraising requirements for social organizations. Yet, after the closure of more than 10 labor NGOs, Guangdong officials do not seem to be living up to their word.

The closure of these NGOs has caused a flurry of public sympathy and support. In addition to the open letter mentioned above, Southern Daily, the official newspaper in Guangdong Province, published an article in September titled “Shenzhen’s labor NGOs forced to relocate after investigations.” The article was widely publicized online.  Those NGOs that have already lost their space, such as Little Grass (小小草) and Hand-in-Hand (手牵手), have created mailing groups, online discussions forums, micro-blogs, and blogs to bring attention to their predicament.

Sun Heng’s Migrant Youth Troupe, and a few other organizations, are regarded by those in the sector as some of the more successful labor organizations. Yet, when comparing Tongxin School’s initial success to the eviction of Shenzhen’s labor groups, two leaders of southern NGOs reached the same conclusion, saying “These two situations are basically unrelated.” First, they say, the scope of their work is different.  The education of migrant children and the ‘social education’ of migrant workers are both quite different from the rights protection work carried out by the Shenzhen labor groups. In addition, the Tongxin School was only negotiating with a few government bureaus at the basic level, while the Shenzhen NGOs are facing investigations from the Guangdong provincial government as a whole. Finally, these evicted groups were located in the Longgang District of Shenzhen, a hub of factories and industry. These NGOs are perpetually facing pressure from companies, thus they are confronting an alliance of both business and government.

The worsening situation of these groups is not limited to Guangdong. Recently, a group in Shanghai that provides services to migrant workers is also facing dissolution, despite the fact that Shanghai has traditionally been an area where government support for NGO services has been strongest.

Labor groups have always been an unsettling and sensitive topic. The government and domestic funders worry about the sensitive nature of their work, while overseas donors express both concern and optimism. However, if you look past the immediate fear and concern associated with the idea of labor groups, what are they really made of? What function do they serve? If you examine their activities and fields of service, what are the demands of these groups? Do they really have the organization and staff necessary to become a force for resistance? Given the recent mobilization of workers in the south, do these groups really have a role in this? Perhaps by carefully dissecting the situation, we will find that fear and concern often result from unfounded misunderstandings.

Is there space for rights-protection organizations to exist transparently? Reflection on this question has already led to some action. At the beginning of the year, four regional offices of the Little Bird Hotline (小小鸟打工热线) brought together several labor groups to initiate activities to promote information transparency among labor NGOs. They hope that by releasing this information, they will improve the credibility of these NGOs. Another concern for labor groups is funding sources. In reality, NGOs from every sector – whether it be environment, HIV/AIDS, or education – depends on overseas funding for its survival. Though this funding comes from a variety of sources, should these organizations simply “not eat for fear of choking”. Allegedly, a government department in Guangdong has expressed approval of Panyu Migrant Workers Service Center (番禺打工文书服务部)  and Little Bird (小小鸟) disclosing their funding sources.

One NGO leader expressed indignation at the eviction notices, while also pointing out that each organization has its good and bad elements and that development has to occur in a standardized fashion. By looking at the organizations that have survived for ten years or so, how many have developed? To what extent are organizations providing words of assistance to workers doing so for personal gain? Some organizations have taken the concept of ‘work related injuries’, to provide services and assistance to workers as a way to acquire clients and business opportunities. Another leader for a newly established NGO also commented that the greatest obstacle to developing their work in Shenzhen is not the government or businesses, but rather local labor groups who often tell him: “Shenzhen is our territory.”

Whether suppressed or not, labor groups will continue to survive simply because of the enormous demand for them. In the open letter mentioned above, academics and journalists claimed: “The government should make the best of a situation and, find lawful ways to advance the development of labor NGOs. This is the wisest course of action.” And for those groups who have repeatedly suffered eviction and suppression, as well as those who are relatively better off, the question is whether they can learn from their experiences and go so far as to cooperate and raise the level of their work, as NGOs in other sectors have.

In Brief

This editorial addresses the troubling harassment of labor NGOs in Guangdong during the summer and fall of 2012
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