Effort to Form Union in China Meets Ferocious Repression

A group of workers in China’s manufacturing hub of Shenzhen tried something very rare this summer—they attempted to follow the legal process to set up a union.

University students lent tremendous support. But their employer and the Chinese government cracked down on both the workers and the students with firings, detention, surveillance, and the threat of jail sentences.

Workers at the welding-equipment manufacturer Shenzhen Jasic Technology initiated the process of forming a union in May. Among their biggest complaints were arbitrary fines and the company’s underpayment into government-run funds that help workers pay rent or buy houses.

Workers followed the law in setting up a union, including requesting and receiving permission from upper-level unions affiliated with the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the only unions authorized in China.

In response to a rising tide of labor disputes, since the mid-2000s the ACFTU has built up more workplace branches, especially in foreign-invested firms, through a top-down effort. But these unions are notoriously ineffective at representing workers, focusing instead on organizing recreational activities and providing small holiday gifts. They mainly serve to preempt organizing.

Moreover, many companies are still not unionized, including Jasic, which is listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange. The company employs 1,000 workers at this factory.

“We Are Like Tiny Bugs”

After workers collected signatures to form a union, in July the district-level union federation and the company denounced their effort as illegal—since the company had quickly formed a union to forestall the workers’ effort.

Jasic changed the job duties of union supporters and fired six of the most vocal. On July 20 the sacked workers…

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