China cracks down on labor as workers lose leading advocate


China’s crackdown on labor activists is well depicted in a new film, an exposé that coincides with the passing of one of Chinese workers’ most impressive international advocates.

The conviction last September of three prominent labor activists for “gathering crowds to disturb social order” may have marked the end of an era of “pragmatic authoritarianism” toward labor organization, China Digital Times reports. The shift towards a harder line was captured by director Wen Hai in his new documentary “We, The Workers,” CNN reports, which appeared earlier this month at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (below).

Earl V. Brown, Jr. (above), Solidarity Center labor and employment law counsel, succumbed February 26 to complications following a long bout with pneumonia, writes Kate Conradt:

Over his long career, Earl met, mentored, trained and supported workers, lawyers and human rights advocates confronting some of the world’s greatest injustices. His work helped Burmese migrants and refugees fight employment discrimination in Thailand; Bangladeshi lawyers pursue justice in Bangladeshi courts for victims of industrial disasters; networks of unions and NGOs expose occupational diseases; and strengthen workers’ compensation laws and practices across Asia.

“Earl was one of the smartest people I have ever met,” said Shawna Bader-Blau, Executive Director of the Solidarity Center.* “He was deeply grounded politically, morally and in his work in the belief that the people of the global working class, especially the most disenfranchised, were the most important people in the world, and his work from Bangladesh to Thailand to China always reflected that. And he made me laugh. A lot. I will miss him like so many.”

Hundreds of Volkswagen workers in northeast China this week took action to demand equal pay, China Labor Bulletin reports.

Such incidents of spontaneous labor militancy highlighted the need for labor relations reform, especially given the shortcomings of the state-controlled ACFTU union, Earl Brown argued.

“China has the greatest and most rapidly assembled working class in the history of mankind,” Brown told a 2009 hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

“One of the great things the international labor movement can do better than any other group, is assist pro-worker voices in China, in the union, with policymakers, in their legal aid societies, to begin this industrial relations function, to begin to work to help and partner with Chinese counterparts on bargaining skills and to begin to bargain so that you can have the bargaining,” he said.

“Without industrial institutions to systematically speak for workers in trouble, and a legal framework promoting such representation and fostering conflict resolution and rights enforcement, it is doubtful that China can attain its own form of ‘democracy’ or even stability,” he argued.

In many other countries, the labor movement is the largest and most representative civil society group, Brown noted, highlighting the potential for international solidarity and assistance.

“Civil society to civil society, union to union and worker rights advocate to worker rights advocate contact and cooperation should always be an element in our approach to the world’s newest industrial giant, China,” he told the Congressional-Executive Commission on China three years later. “These direct civil society links imperil no government and do not import conflict where there is none already.”

*A core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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