Labor NGOs: Growing Pains

The following is a translation of an in-depth Southern Daily (Nanfang Ribao) article examining the recent suppression of labor NGOs in Guangdong.

Facing inspections, leaders of relevant organizations hope that the relevant government bureaus will help regulate and improve NGOs

Beginning last February, more than ten labor NGOs have been repeatedly inspected by lower-level government bureaus. These NGOs have included the Shenzhen Chunfeng Labor Disputes Services Center, the Shenzhen Yuanqu Workers’ Services Center, the Shenzhen Migrant Workers’ Services Center, the Shenzhen Qingcao Workers’ Services Center, and the Modern Women Workers’ Services Center. Immediately following these inspections, landlords for these organizations have looked for reasons to cancel their leases and request that they relocate.

Although inspection is the duty of these government bureaus, when faced with irregularities within public-service or welfare-oriented social organizations, whether these bureaus should help regulate and improve these organizations or simply shut them down is a policy issue.

“Are we not going to be able to continue working?” Since the beginning of August, Shenzhen’s Hand-in-Hand Workers’ Activity Center has faced routine inspections by lower-level government bureaus, and this has its leader, Chen Yandi, worried. Chen’s concern is certainly not unfounded. After inspections began, the landlord of the NGO’s office terminated their lease, leaving them with the choice of either not working or having to relocate.

Starting in 2008, the municipal party committee of the Shenzhen city government has listed fostering the development of social organizations as an important topic. The Guangdong provincial party committee, at a meeting in 2011, also stressed the importance of strengthening social construction and innovating in social management.

These kinds of positive policies filled Chen Yandi and her coworkers with hope, thinking perhaps that the inspections would soon end.

Last Saturday, however, Chen’s hopes were shattered when her NGO’s landlord forced them to relocate on the pretense that her child would be returning. Yesterday, she came to the Hand-in-Hand office three times in a row, pressing them on when they would move out and claiming that she was “in a hurry” to have them leave. “The landlord stressed that she meant to talk to me about this last month, but it was only last month that she collected our rent for six months,” said Chen

An 80’s-Generation Girl Starts an NGO

In Shenzhen, there are ten labor NGOs similar to Hand-in-Hand, mostly found in the Bao’an and Longgang districts where migrant workers are gradually providing services that factories do not offer.

Located on Xixiang Road in Bao’an district, the Shenzhen Hand-in-Hand Workers’ Activity Center (hereafter referred to as “Hand-in-Hand”) is a public-welfare organization designed to help migrant workers. Chen Yandi and her friend founded Hand-in-Hand in 2007. In five years, it has grown from only two people into an organization with eight full-time employees and some repute among migrant workers in Shenzhen.

“Lots of young people like to come here to read or make friends,” says local motorcycle cabbie Mr. Li.

Chen Yandi, a 27-year-old native of Guangxi is the organization’s leader. Speaking of her office, Chen seems to hold it particularly dear. In 2002, having just graduated from middle school, Chen moved from Guigang, Guangxi to Xixiang in Bao’an, Shenzhen to work on a production line for the next three years. In August of 2005, disaster struck when the fingers on her right hand were maimed by machinery, an injury classified by Chinese law as a 9th-degree disability.

Suddenly faced with a work injury, Chen lost her life direction. “I didn’t know how to face my friends or family, let alone where I should take my life from there.”

“Many workers who get work injuries are only in their twenties, or even teenagers. If they can’t get past their sudden hardship, they’ll spend the rest of their lives in a state of depression,” says Chen’s coworker Wang Baoyu.

Chen said frankly that it was her work friends that helped her move past the shadow of her injury and helped her conceive of the idea of an organization devoted to providing psychological support and other forms of help to injured workers. At the end of 2007, Hand-in-Hand was born.

“Waiting until after an injury has happened to provide support is already too late. Proper training beforehand is much more important than rights protection afterward,” Chen believes. In view of this concept, occupational safety education has continually been at the core of Hand-in-Hand’s social work.

“We also go to hospitals to carry out work injury visits, providing psychological support and helping others emerge from the shadow of work injuries. We help them properly deal with injuries and disabilities, and keep them from thinking about hurting themselves or others,” Chen says.

Journalists found that there are ten labor organizations like Hand-in-Hand in Shenzhen, located in the Bao’an and Longgang areas where migrant workers tend to be. These organizations focus on providing work safety education, arranging cultural activities, and providing legal advocacy and consultation for migrant workers. By their own actions, they provide in their own small way the services that factories do not offer.

Will Relocating Force Us to Leave our “High Ground”?

Facing continued routine inspections and the cancellation of their lease, Chen and her coworkers faced a difficult problem. Not only had they lost their office, they’d also lost their direction for the future.

Beginning last February, more than ten Shenzhen labor organizations faced inspections from numerous lower-level government bureaus dealing with taxation, work safety, prevention and safety, social insurance, housing management, labor inspection, and more. Immediately afterward, landlords began looking for excuses to cancel their leases and require them to relocate.

Regarding these matters, journalists contacted authorities in Bao’an and Longgang, but none gave clear responses. Among those bureaus contacted, some authorities expressed that the inspections were simply routine investigations, and that they were not aimed in particular at these organizations.

An authority at the Xixiang sub-district propaganda bureau told journalists that the inspections were not the responsibility of his office, so he did not understand the reasons behind them. However, he said, regardless of the situation, reasonable investigations by relevant departments are to be expected, and public interest organizations should not be exempted from legal inspections.

Facing continued routine inspections and the cancellation of their lease, Chen and her coworkers faced a difficult problem. Not only had they lost their office, they had also lost their direction for the future.

“Isn’t it said that we’re supposed to vigorously develop social organizations? If there’s something we’re missing or something we’re doing wrong, isn’t it better to help us improve to meet the standards rather than shut us down and make us leave?” Chen asks.

But will moving be safe? Journalists found out that, facing pressure, the Shenzhen Migrant Workers’ Center relocated from its old location of several years in the Tongle neighborhood to Nanlian Street. But as soon as they moved to their new location, NGO leader Chen Mao says, “the Bureau of Industry and Commerce came to our door and told us we didn’t have a license to operate.”

The Bao’an-based Shenzhen Yuanqu Workers’ Service Center, facing continuous inspections by government bureaus, moved five times and is still unable to work normally. They are now moving from Shenzhen to Dongguan, but the NGO still hopes to remain in Shenzhen.

For those who want to stay in Shenzhen, where could they go? Chen Yandi racked her brain to find the solution, “Someone once told us that we could move to Longhua.”

Li Zhao of the Qingcao Workers’ Hotline once asked the same question. “At that time I asked them if it was OK to move to Longhua. I got no response, but when I asked if moving to Shiyan would be acceptable, they told me it was absolutely forbidden.”

However, labor NGO representatives told Southern Daily reporters that the Longhua district is changing, and that commerce has developed there in place of industry, so there are fewer and fewer workers there. Moving there would sacrifice their good location. “Moving to Longhua would not only make starting campaigns more difficult, it would make it more difficult for workers to come to the office, seeing as they’re so busy. None of us want to move to Longhua,” said Chen Yandi.

Professor Wang Jiangsong of the Institute of Chinese Labor Relations told journalists that if labor NGOs were no longer allowed to help protect workers’ rights, the NGOs would lose the meaning and space for their existence. Their rights work is the reason that workers are willing to come to them and trust them. Labor NGOs can work with the government to protect workers’ rights, lifting some of the burden off the state. With the changing role of government, labor NGOs help mitigate social problems and improve the government’s level of social management.

Regarding the purpose of existence for labor NGOs, Zhang Zhiru of the Shenzhen Chunfeng Labor Disputes Services Center told journalists that many Shenzhen businesses felt that labor NGOs were teaching workers that by filing complaints and lawsuits, they could protect their rights. “Bosses from many businesses feel that migrant workers’ understanding of legal rights is too strong.”

Wang Jiangsong expressed that there is a certain rationality and inevitability behind the appearance of labor organizations. They grow in response to the conflicts between labor and capital, they help resolve social problems to a certain degree, and their capability and impact is fairly evident. Their management should be institutionalized and legalized, so that their campaigns can be couched in a legal framework.

“Become More Open and Transparent”

In this storm of inspections, Little Bird Migrant Workers’ Hotline should be facing less pressure than most NGOs.

At the Shenzhen Little Bird office, as soon as one walks in they notice a poster on the wall with “Workers’ Rights Hotline” printed in large characters above a phone number. Little Bird’s founder Wei Wei says, “We exist to help protect workers’ rights.”

While Wei’s blunt way of speaking may make it hard for others to understand him, Little Bird’s influence is clear to see. According to him, at the end of 2011, Little Bird had offices in Shenzhen, Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenyang, capable of providing legal aid to 10,000 people each year. The NGO has received 7.75 million yuan in funding for 43 projects from 18 international foundations from Canada, Australia, the United States, Germany, and the European Union. As of 2011, Little Bird had created a platform the in north China, northeastern China, eastern China, and southern China, providing as many as 10,000 workers with legal service. From its founding, Little Bird has directly helped as many as 315,075 workers and indirectly helped another 519,710.

Certainly, Little Bird’s development has not been entirely smooth sailing. Early on, the Beijing office experienced routine inspections by government bureaus many times. Facing setbacks, Wei looked for effective ways to solve the issue, and eventually turned to actively promoting communication with the media and the government.”

“It’s not that we have good guanxi with the government, but rather that we actively carry out public relations,” Wei laughs. Since Little Bird’s founding in 1999, this has been the NGOs method of survival.

In Wei’s opinion, the recent storm of inspections is connected to labor NGOs’ method of operation.

“Labor NGOs in this area are used to being low-key. They’re not willing to actively pursue public relations with the government, they’re not willing to build social credibility, and they’re not willing to be more open and transparent about their work. In the long term, this creates suspicions within the government and this time, the pressure that had been building finally came out in the open.

In addition to actively carrying out public relations, Little Bird’s website publishes its finances, daily worker consultations and activities. All of the NGO’s operations are completely transparent.

Wei wishes to say to other NGOs, “We’re from the countryside. Naturally we’re a weak group. In the rights protection process, we’ll certainly make mistakes. In running our social organizations, there will be places that need improving. But it’s only when you reveal your weakest points that you’ll earn others’ trust and support.”

How Do You Register with the Civil Affairs Bureau?

The vast majority of labor NGOs find it impossible to register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. In order to start operations, some will do as the Shenzhen NGO Hand-in-Hand did and register as businesses. Others simply don’t register at all.

On July 1st of this year, Guangdong’s provincial government produced, “On Promoting the Development and Regulated Management of Social Organizations,” in which the government ruled that except under special circumstances and in specific fields, social organizations in Guangdong would no longer need a professional supervising unit to sponsor them. Instead, they could register directly with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. From the perspective of social organizations, this would remove a great burden.

Regarding Hand-in-Hand and other organizations registered as businesses, there seemed to be some hope for switching registrations. “If we’re not registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, then it’s difficult to apply for a location, and it’s difficult to receive support from the Volunteers’ Association or the Women’s Federation. Workers will doubt our motives, thinking we may be for-profit.”

Because being registered as a business was so inconvenient, Hand-in-Hand began preparing to register as soon as the new law was issued. However, when Hand-in-Hand went to the district and city-level Ministry of Civil Affairs office in July to apply, they were held up on the first step which is getting their name approved.

The Bao’an Civil Affairs bureau replied that after filling out the name authorization form, they should take the form to the street-level social affairs committee to have their seal affixed. But when Chen Yandi delivered the form to the street committee, she was told that the committee relies on the neighborhood to monitor organizations, and because the neighborhood wasn’t familiar with Hand-in-Hand, they couldn’t affix their seal.

“They also told me that hadn’t heard of the new law. We got stuck at the first step,” Chen Yandi said with disappointment.

After Hand-in-Hand’s application was rejected, they applied again to the city Civil Affairs bureau at the end of July, only to be stuck once again at the name authorization process. Chen says that because the application required they fill out the scope of business for the organization, “at the time we wrote ‘legal consultation.’ The Ministry of Civil Affairs replied that because law constitutes a professional function, we would still have to register beneath another bureau.”

Chen disagrees. She feels that their legal consultation work consists only of editing and printing the simplest legal documents to give to workers, or when workers face legal problems, they recommend a labor union or government legal aid center. Her organization does not provide any direct legal services.

Similarly, after the release of the new law, someone from the Shenzhen Migrant Workers’ Center went to the Longgang Civil Affairs bureau to ask if they could register. Two weeks later, their reply was, “This is just something the media is cooking up.”

When journalists contacted the city Civil Affairs bureau, they were told that the relevant official was away on business and was unavailable for interview. However, one employee revealed that although the city had expanded the number of organizations that could register directly, labor organizations were not among them. They would still have to register with another government bureau. Moreover, while the provincial government had produced the new law, specific details still had yet to appear.

Chen Yandi’s earliest and most urgent desire was to find a managing bureau with which to register and thus successfully register Hand-in-Hand as a public welfare organization. But now, even staying registered as a business to continue operating may be too large a dream.

Blue Worker’s Cooperative: Registering Requires Taking Initiative to Avoid Risk

The Blue Workers’ Cooperative: Although many NGOs find registering with Civil Affairs impossible, the Blue Workers’ Cooperation, an organization focusing on workers’ education that arrived in Shenzhen only this February, successfully registered this July.

On July 27th, 2012, the Blue Workers’ Cooperative received approval from the city of Shenzhen and a registration certificate from Civil Affairs. According to the Secretary-General of the Blue Workers’ Cooperative, He Zhongzhou, the whole process was “very smooth,” and they never encountered any obstacles.

On their application form, under “scope of business,” they filled in, “provide specialized social service; carry out social awareness work and academic exchange activities; and continue in the work of our managing bureau in providing social services.” While these goals seem rather empty, rather unlike the words “legal awareness,” and ‘legal aid” written out by other labor NGOs, He Zhongzhou told journalists that the work done by his NGO is actually very similar to the others, including education, legal awareness, legal consultation, work safety education, etc.

From the outside, it appears as if He Zhongzhou’s organization’s success in registering was due to his support from ranks of university professors, specialized researchers, lawyers, and social workers. But he says that the technical management of his organization’s public relations and the professional nature of its operations are key to his organization, as well as the reason behind his successful registration.

According to him, in the registration process, using the words “beneficial citizen” was recommended by the director of the Social Work Office in the Shenzhen Civil Affairs Bureau. When applying, they didn’t use the original name of Blue Workers’ Cooperation, but rather wrote that the Good Citizen’s Social Work Services Center’s goal was to provide labor education and promote work-study programs, while avoiding sensitive topics.

He Zhongzhou feels that the term “labor” isn’t used in official language, so an application from a “labor services center” would not fit within the regulations and would likely be rejected.

Learning from Others: Labor NGOs in Guangzhou and Dongguan

The puzzling thing is that these cases have centered around Shenzhen. Journalists have found that in Guangzhou and Dongguan, other than the Dongguan Rights Safety and Production Management Consulting Center, no other labor NGOs have faced registration problems.

Founded in August of 1998, the Panyu Migrant Workers Service Center, which is known as being the first labor NGO to register in China, mostly provides opportunities for exchange between workers, interactive activities, and helps workers deal with labor rights issues. Their representative, Zeng Feiyang, told journalists that from 2008 until now, they had never faced routine inspection problems. Now the Center is applying to the Civil Affairs Bureau to register.

On July 3, Zeng delivered his application to the Guangzhou Civil Affairs Bureau. On July 5th, he received feedback saying that because they currently lack any detailed regulations and are therefore unable to make any final decisions, they should let the matter drop.

At the same time, the Guangzhou-based Xiangyanghua Women Workers’ Center, which had previously applied to the Civil Affairs Bureau, entered the bank auditing stage of their application and was about to finish the process to be registered as a public interest social organization. The organization focuses on female migrant workers and their needs.

In Dongguan, after last year’s “Kunshu Student Aid” event, the government has loosened restrictions on social organizations considerably. In December of last year, the Dongguan Blue Workers’ Public Interest Center was successfully registered. On May 28th, the Dongguan Candlelight Public Interest Center was also successfully established.  The Candlelight Public Interest Center provides social aid, common legal awareness, and cultural activities for disadvantaged groups.

When speaking of the road to registration, the leader of the Candlelight Center, Song Gangfu recalls bad memories. When he asked about applying in May of last year, the Dongguan Civil Affairs Bureau said that at most he could set up a library. After the Kunshu Student Aid incident when “the person at the registration bureau told me I could register as a public service center.”

“When the Civil Affairs bureau was auditing us, they gave us lots of advice. By this May, the Candlelight Public Interest Center was formally registered,” Song Gangfu said happily.

One Expert’s Opinion

Director Yu Jianrong of the Social Issues Research Center housed within the Rural Development Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences writes:

The government should regulate and guide labor organizations.

Yu Jianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences expressed that having worked with labor organizations many times in the past, he has kept close watch on the Shenzhen “routine inspection” issue. As he understands it, a great number of these labor organizations only want to help workers who find themselves disadvantaged in modern society. They provide help and services that are beneficial towards solving conflicts between labor and capital interests, and they also help the government in solving labor disputes.

He believes that by providing workers with the most basic legal consultation services, labor organizations not only help protect the rights of workers who have received unjust treatment, but also help resolve labor disputes through legal means. This can help cut down on labor petitions and protests. This is very valuable for social development and the push for the construction of a society based on the rule of law.

“I feel that local government bodies should change their positions regarding labor organizations. First, they should realize that these organizations actually help the government solve social problems, not create them. Second, they should change their political awareness and create a tolerant environment for these organizations,” said Yu Jianrong.

At the same time, he feels that that the Guangdong provincial government is putting special importance on social construction and development.  Moreover, Shenzhen is in many respects at the forefront of the country. The government should, within the framework of social construction, regulate and guide the development of labor NGOs.

In Brief

The following is a translation of an in-depth Southern Daily (Nanfang Ribao) article examining the recent suppression of labor NGOs in Guangdong.
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