There has been progress. In 2008, the Labour Contract Law was introduced “to protect the legitimate rights and interests of workers, and to build and develop harmonious and stable employment relationships.” But with economic downturn that same year, practical concerns stalled enforcement of the new safety standards and minimum wage.
“We are still operating very much under the old mindset in China, which is, ‘Once an accident happens, we will figure out how to [deal with it] as opposed to ‘Let’s avoid the accident before it happens,’ ” explains Jeremy Prepscius, former head of Asian sourcing for Nike now with Business for Social Responsibility, a group (members include H&M and IKEA) that promotes corporate ethics and social responsibility.
Mr. Zhang says that changing Chinese manufacturers’ practices will take time and happen in three steps: “Step number one is meeting the basic legal minimum wage, every factory doing this. Step number two, workers should get wages above the legal minimum, benefits and improved working condition, etc. And step three is ensuring the voice of labour at is heard when the government is drafting policy.”
All this depends on one crucial change, however. “The ACFTU monopoly means that there is no real organizing,” he admits. “To get to step two and three, we need to break out of this monopoly.”
Mr. Zhang is vague when asked what help he gets toward achieving these goals, but Li Qiang of China Labor Watch, a New York-based agency devoted to worker rights, admits to providing Spring Breeze’s “seed money.”
“Most of the funding comes from the U.S. State Department ... through a third-party organization,” he explains. “In 2006, when I first got the State Department grant, I was able to directly transfer the money to Zhang Zhiru. But as it became more sensitive, I used organizations to move the money around.”
Mr. Li, who has helped Spring Breeze develop its worker-training program, says Mr. Zhang is well regarded in the labour-rights community. “He has a really good understanding and awareness of the [human]rights environment, and he has a lot of experience in the field.”
What’s more, “he thinks about things independently ... He has a critical mind.”
But he also has to watch his step. Working conditions have improved over the years – and even the AFCTU has shown signs of change. After Honda workers in nearby Foshan staged a wildcat strike in 2010, the federation sensed the political winds had shifted and eventually helped to negotiate a 30-per-cent pay raise.
As well, the rise of the corporate social responsibility movement has spotlighted working conditions at such places as Foxconn, where the high-pressure environment that churns out laptops and iPads has contributed to 17 suicides in the past five years.
But the possibility of mass unrest has the barefoot lawyers doing all they can to put the government at ease, especially after
it imposed crackdowns last year in response to worker protests sparked by the Arab spring.
Mr. Zhang had forged a coalition with 20 or so other lawyers in the delta and they would meet every month in secret. Now, he says, “the government is especially paranoid about labour rights organizers. If we start working together, we might get unwanted attention ... that would get us shut down.”
He speaks from experience, having been monitored, harassed and “called in for tea,” by the Public Security Bureau more times than he cares to remember. As well, documents released recently by WikiLeaks include a cable from Guangzhou’s U.S. consulate that details how Mr. Zhang was slapped with a 300-per-cent penalty for being late to pay his taxes.
Last fall, he discovered just how far he could go when he decided to run for election to the only ostensibly democratic body in China, the Local People’s Congress. First, a supporter was detained while handing out flyers and, the next day, 20 police descended, telling Mr. Zhang to stop campaigning because he was “undermining” the electoral process. A squad car took up position in front of his office, and police began to follow wherever he went.
Meanwhile, election officials announced new regulations: Suddenly, anyone without Shenzhen hukou was no longer eligible to vote.
Mr. Zhang got the point – and pulled out of the race.
Adam Matthews is a Toronto-raised, New York based freelance journalist. He researched this story with the help of a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and reported it with help from Shenzhen-based journalist Michael Standaert.