A female worker representative in an auto parts factory, who was democratically elected by her fellow rank and file workers and is fighting bravely against the management, has recently become an icon in the circles of labor activists and lefties in China. This young heroine’s name is Shen Mengyu, who is also a graduate of Sun Yat-sen University and holds a master’s degree in mathematics and computational science. The contrast between her career choice and outstanding academic qualification aroused broader curiosity and discussion on social media as well.
It’s quite possible that Mengyu came across left-wing politics and labor activism at university. As she writes in an open letter:
During the time of studying at Sun Yat-sen University, I attended various extracurricular lectures, which opened a door for me to know the workers. I saw the workers who suffer from work-related injuries——their crippled bodies are the price of economic development; I saw the Foxconn workers who fell from the factory roof——their lives were as cheap as grass. I learned an occupational disease called pneumoconiosis. It’s so painful that the workers who got it would rather die. And I learned more: benzene poisoning, leukemia, noise-induced hearing loss…
In the summer of 2014, the cleaning workers of the Guangzhou university town took industrial action to defend their rights. On the scene of protest, they told us about the hypocrisy and shamelessness of the property management company: deducting workers’ wages and benefits, not paying the contribution to social security and housing provident fund on time, asking workers to sign blank contracts, and evading the compensation they shall pay… The students who believed in justice took a stand to support these workers, and were also moved and educated by the latter’s solidarity and spirit of struggle. After the 20 days of joint struggle of the workers and students, we finally got the good news: the cleaning workers successfully defended their rights.
Mengyu graduated in 2015, which means she probably started university around 2008. The political environment was much freer than today’s China. Google was not blocked by the Great Fire Wall; there was no law to restrict foreign NGOs; hosting Olympic Games made the government pose some liberal gestures at least; and the state machine had not yet mastered the big data technology to spy everyone’s smartphone.
Therefore, all kinds of political currents, NGOs, groups of civil society and student clubs were able to appear on campuses without too much difficulty. Some of them encourage university students to take blue collar jobs after graduation, as a way of “integration into the working class”. As an outsider, I don’t know Mengyu’s specific political standpoint and evolvement, but it’s quite possible that she accepted this idea when she was a student.
Assembly Line Worker
As a master graduate, Mengyu could easily get a well-paid white collar job, but she decided to stick to her political belief. In November 2015, she found a job in a Japanese-funded auto parts factory——Guangzhou NHK Spring Precision. The working condition is horrible, as she writes in that open letter:
NHK mainly produces springs used on engines and clutches for car companies such as Honda and Nissan. After some brief training, I walked into the workshop for the first time. The roar of machines stung my eardrum, the smell of oil blew on my face, and metal dust filled the whole workshop. The working area was oily and shiny, and workers in it were busy and strained. The hazard sign of benzene and other chemicals made me nervous. Workers only wore disposable masks, which could neither effectively block dust nor filter toxic gases. Some of them even didn’t wear masks.
The workshop’s temperature is high all year round. It becomes unbearable from May and above 35°C is common. In some places, it could be as hot as 50°C…
The sufferings of pregnant women in the factory are more distressing. They have to work harder, because if they could not meet the quota, they will be abused by the management, such as pulling a face, not allowing them to work over-time hours (which considerably reduces their income) and insulting them verbally. In order to meet their quota, they have to give up the breaks which are provided to pregnant women by the labor law… Thus most pregnant women in the workshop would resign. This is also because the horrible working condition would hurt their babies.
As an enthusiastic, warm-hearted and righteous person, Mengyu won the trust of her co-workers. With the knowledge of labor laws she learned during her days as a student activist, she can also offer lots of help to them.
The yellow union exists in the factory would never take the initiative to organize workers to make a change. So Mengyu had to wait for the time when her colleagues are willing to take a fight themselves.
NHK does have collective bargaining on year-end bonus and wages. However, when the time of the 2018 bargaining was approaching, there was a rumor saying the factory is going to purchase lots of new machines, which means this year’s profit will be low.
Workers worried that this was the management’s trick, which would be used as the excuse to press down wage increase rate and workers’ benefits during the bargaining. Thus they ran an unofficial poll on WeChat (a Chinese multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app) to decide how to choose their representative and the outcome was they wanted a “one person one vote” election. Then a second online poll nominated Mengyu as their candidate on April 1st.
Although the management did not want to negotiate with a left-wing worker who probably knows more about labor laws than themselves, they did not dare to veto the choice of the majority. Then on April 10th, Mengyu officially became one of the nine worker representatives for the 2018 collective bargaining, and the only one elected by the rank and file. In order to prepare for the first round bargaining on April 13th, Mengyu immediately started collecting opinions and demands on the factory floor with a questionnaire.
Unsurprisingly, the plan proposed by the management in the first round was not sweet——increasing the basic monthly wage by 1.66% and the year-end bonus will equal to 3.5 times of the comprehensive monthly wage. Later the worker representatives conducted another survey and on May 16th they concluded the demands: the monthly basic wage increase should be 8% plus 332 yuan; the factory should pay the unpaid contribution to the housing provident fund.
However, Mengyu did not have the chance to bring these demands to the second round bargaining——she was sacked by the yellow union and the management on May 28th.
Repressed Labor Activist
Persecution and harassment had emerged since the first day Mengyu became a worker representative. The allegations from the management were varied: inciting workers to ask for irrational pay rise, collusion with foreign forces, doing unauthorized survey, buying votes, and leaking company secrets.
On May 18th, lots of defamatory leaflets appeared on the factory commuter bus, saying Mengyu lied to the workers. On May 23rd, she received a penalty notice for an absurd charge——the two resumes she had submitted in the past were not exactly the same. On May 26th, she was blocked by factory security guard from entering the factory.
Finally on May 28th, the factory union committee held a secret meeting and passed the resolution to cancel Mengyu’s representative qualification. Latter in the afternoon, the HR manager told her that she was fired and there would be no dismissal compensation.
However, the rest of the NHK workers were not intimidated. They stuck to their demands and in June they got victorious results: the management agreed to make up the unpaid contribution to the housing provident fund and increase the basic monthly wage by 6% plus 200 yuan; and the year-end bonus would equal to 4 times of the comprehensive monthly wage plus performance award.
Mengyu did not give up the fight either. She created a WeChat platform to spread the news of the NHK struggle. Although the platform was banned latter in July, lots of people have read her articles and reposted them on other platforms. She have sent open letters to Guangzhou Federation of Trade Unions and other relevant government departments, as well as applied for labor arbitration for her own case of illegal dismissal. Even though these institutions are very unlikely going to provide meaningful help, these actions can reveal which side they are on and educate workers. The newest attempt was that she and two other NHK workers went to the Huangpu District Court of Guangzhou to sue the NHK union and its chairman on July 13th. Unsurprisingly, the court dismissed this suit, with an excuse that it has no jurisdiction over this case.
People may ask why the NHK workers did not take industrial action to defend their representative. Considering the economic situation, it’s not easy to find another job with relatively good payment, so I think no one should criticize the workers for not being militant. Besides, the official union is completely on the management’s side and no institution can organize the workers in the workplace.
Nevertheless, the sign of unity of the NHK workers were strong enough to force the management to give up their original wage-cut plan. The latter knew that sacking one solitary lefty might be a safe maneuver, but ignoring the demands of a whole factory’s angry workers would very likely escalate the dispute. Moreover, there was no guarantee that the government would back up a Japanese-fund company if its workers went on strike, especially in today’s political environment.
Mengyu is undoubtedly a great labor heroine and her choice to go to factory is completely fine. However, it does not mean that taking blue collar jobs is the only way of “integration into the working class”.
Firstly, white collar workers are part of the working class too——in some countries they are even the majority and they go on strike as well. Secondly, it’s true that in China most industrial actions occur in factories, but doesn’t it mean that white collar workers also need left-wing inspirations in their workplaces?
Nevertheless, the story of Mengyu and the support she has received show that more and more youth in today’s China are turning left and willing to fight against exploitation and oppression.