“A riot that could easily have been avoided”

A writer from China Labour Bulletin traveled to the site of the Guangdong migrant worker protests that shocked China a few weeks ago, and wrote about her findings:

In late May, Xiong Hanjiang, a 19-year-old migrant worker from Sichuan visited his township labour bureau in the hope that officials there would help him get his two-month’s salary back from his employer, Hua Yi Porcelain. The bureau did in fact order the factory to give Xiong his 3,400 yuan salary but the boss refused to pay. When Xiong and his parents demanded payment, the boss and his family started to beat them and Xiong’s hamstrings were severed, leaving him possibly paralyzed for the rest of his life.

Following the assault, Xiong’s relatives pleaded with the township government in Guxiang and municipal government in Chaozhou to arrest the boss and give Xiong proper compensation. Sadly, neither government paid any attention to their plight.

Frustrated and angry, the family, together with hundreds of other Sichuan migrant workers, vented their fury by smashing cars in the town. The message they wanted to convey was: Why didn’t the government care about or help a worker paralyzed by his cruel boss just for asking for his due salary?

When the riot broke out, local residents thought the time had come to “battle to guard our homeland” and quickly equipped themselves with any domestic weapons they could find and forced their way into the houses of migrant workers, destroying anything they saw.

The local government tried to stem the unrest but failed. A detachment of Guangdong provincial armed police were sent in, along with more than 50 police from Sichuan. According to one local resident, the police were stationed in Guxiang township for 20 days.

The Chinese media reported that about 200 people took part in the riot and that 19 vehicles were damaged. Yet according to a Chaozhou-based taxi driver, several thousand Sichuan migrant workers marched through the streets, swinging clubs on the night of 6 June. “Some 200 cars were smashed, including a couple of BMWs. After the riot started, none of the Sichuan migrants could work. If anyone was seen working, they were beaten,” he said.

Porcelain manufacturing is a labour intensive industry subject to frequent labour disputes, especially in small unregulated family workshops where migrant workers have neither access to reliable institutions of redress nor effective legal enforcement to protect their rights. As a result, it is rumored that Sichuan migrant workers have organized their own underground association to defend themselves with violence and other illegal means.

This riot could have been avoided if the township labour bureau had enforced its order for the payment of Xiong’s wages, or if the municipal authorities had taken prompt action to arrest the boss.

Even the most rudimentary collective bargaining mechanism could have helped workers and factory bosses in the porcelain industry here resolve their disputes. The pre-requisite for collective bargaining is solidarity of workers, as only when they are united can they have the bargaining power to negotiate equally with their bosses, no matter if they are local residents or from Sichuan.

According to official news reports, the boss who attacked Xiong is in custody and his factory closed down. Nearby, it is business as usual at another porcelain factory. Local residents told me this was the first time they had seen such a big riot, but that there was no guarantee it wouldn’t happen again.

To take my ‘broken record’ act one step further, I should note that many of the riots in China could be easily avoided. They’re going to keep happening, and keep growing in intensity, until the government makes real efforts towards political reform and rule of law.

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Filed under China, law, migrant workers, protests

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