CDB Editorial: The Advance and Retreat of Labor NGOs

China Development Brief, No.55 (Fall 2012)

中文 English

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.

9月 3日,一度面临关闭的北京同心实验学校举行了开学典礼。
"8月14日,朝阳供电局党员服务队的志愿者们在开学前再次进行了校内电线线路的检查"、"东城法院的法警叔叔们也特意赶来,为我们的小旗手训练"……开 学日,很多人收到了同心学校发送的照片、图解文字如是说,喜悦、欣慰之情溢于言表。经过近3个月的沟通、游说、施压、抗争,同心学校取得了阶段性的胜利, 而同时被告知搬迁的朝阳区另外三所打工子弟学校已经关闭。这些照片展示了各界对同心学校的支持,读来有着暖暖的感动。在这几个月里,创办人孙恒和他的团队的生存和工作智慧,以及多年建立的支持和资源网络展现给更多的人。
9月9日,20位知名学者、媒体人致信广东省委、省政府及深圳市委、市政府,呼吁立即停止某些职能部门对劳工NGO的无端打压,深圳、广东立法部门应尽快 立法,从而沿着法治的轨道改革广东的社会管理、发展广东的社会组织。但政府方面至今没有回应,公开信的起草者和两位签名者独立进行的为期六天的深圳劳工组织调查也于9月19日结束,调查报告将尽快发布。
从今年2月开始,10多家深圳劳工NGO遭多个基层政府职能部门上门检查,它们的房东以各种理由提前解约,要求搬迁。一些组织乃至遭遇暴力逼迁。劳工组织 这般遭遇已不是第一次,相去不远的2007年、2008年都曾经发生过。然而,去年至今年,广东省政府相继提出社会管理创新,对社会组织开放登记、允许公募等政策都开全国之先,如此背景下出现10多家劳工组织被打压的事件,与广东省创新的形象显得颇不协调。
这些劳工组织的遭遇引起社会舆论的同情和 声援。除了上述的公开信,广东省委机关报《南方日报》于9月初发表《深圳多个劳工组织遭检查后被强制要求搬迁》,被网络广为转载。如今已经失去场地的深圳劳工NGO小小草和手牵手一直通过邮件组、论坛、微博、博客等网络渠道,呼吁社会的关注。
孙恒创办的打工青年艺术团等几个机构被同行认为是国内发展最好的劳工组织。但如果拿同心学校的阶段性成果与深圳多家劳工组织的被驱逐状态相比,两位南方 NGO的负责人几乎不约而同说出这句话;"根本不是一码事"。他们说,首先工作内容不一样,不管是打工子弟的学校教育还是打工者的社会教育,都与深圳劳工组织以维权为主的工作内容区别甚大;此外,同心学校面对的是基层政府的某个部门,而这次深圳NGO面对的是广东省的整体部署和调整。还有,这次遭到驱逐的 NGO多在龙岗区,这里工厂集中,劳工NGO长期受到企业主的压力,他们要面对的是资方和政府的联合。
劳工组织一直是一个有威慑且敏感的词汇。政府、国内资助方担心它的敏感,海外资助方有担心、有欢喜。但剥开那层对"劳工组织"几个字的恐惧和担心,看看中 国劳工组织到底是一个什么样的构成?他们承担了什么样的功能?看看它们到底在哪个领域活跃,组织的诉求是什么?它们是不是真的具有了组织和动员功能而成为 某种强大对抗力量,看看历次南方多次工人的集体行动中,它们是不是真的有角色?也许真正去剖析的话,很多时候恐惧和担忧不过是一个杯弓蛇影的误会。
那些真正的维权类组织还有没有透明的生存空间?这些外部环境的思考已经开始引发一些行动。今年初,小小鸟打工热线四地办公室联合多家劳工组织发起劳工 NGO社会服务信息透明活动,希望通过信息公示,提高劳工NGO的社会公信力。另一个对劳工组织的担心是其资金来源。但事实上,各个领域的民间组织,从环保、防艾到教育,哪个不是曾经吃洋奶生存的?而洋奶的来源多种多样,不可因噎废食。据称,广东相关部门就对番禺打工文书服务部、小小鸟热线能公开财务来源感到放心。
一位劳工NGO负责人对逼迁事件表达义愤的同时,也指出劳工组织良莠不齐,到了必须规范发展的时候——看看那些存活10年左右的组织,有多少发展?在扶助工友的话语下有多大程度上是在谋求个人的私利?原来的工伤探访,已经被一些机构偷换了概念,以工友服务名义接案子,寻找客户源。另一位新成立的NGO负责 人评论说,到深圳开展工作,受到的最大阻碍不是来自政府,也不是企业,而是当地一些劳工组织。这些组织对他说:"深圳是我们的地盘"。
打压,抑或不打压,以劳工NGO之名的组织都将会继续存在,因为存在着巨大的需求。知名学者和媒体人士通过上述公开信建议:"政府要做的是,因势利导,依 法规范和促进劳工NGO的发展,乃为最明智的选择。"而对于多次遭受驱逐打压,以及其他境遇相对趋好的劳工NGO,有没有可能像其他一些领域内的组织那样,做一番内部的反思乃至整合、提升?

Translated by Jeremy Balch

Reviewed by Zaichen Lu

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