Today is International Human Rights Defenders Day, and tomorrow December 10 is International Human Rights Day, so it’s only appropriate that we use this opportunity to remember the Jasic workers and their supporters and explore ways to work for their release.
I was in the process of preparing a list of the 32 individuals associated with the Jasic case who have been in custody, detained and/or disappeared but then two days ago, Human Rights in China provided a valuable public service by issuing an urgent appeal on behalf of the Jasic workers and their supporters, along with a better, more up-to-date list.
The Jasic case will be remembered as an important event in the annals of Chinese labor history, less for what Jasic workers achieved on the factory floor and more for their success in mobilizing wider social attention to the workers movement and for the ferocious repression by Chinese authorities and police.
How the Jasic case got this big
The details of the Jasic Technology case are by now well known. Over the past two years, the factory had asked workers to step up production and changed the scheduling system to redefine leave and thereby reduce workers’ overtime pay. They also imposed a new disciplinary system to ensure workers fell in line. As early as July 2017, a handful of Jasic workers went to the local Labor Bureau to submit a complaint about management practices. Jasic management made some superficial changes but not enough to address the workers’ concerns.
In May and June of 2018, these Jasic worker activists took a different approach to improving labor relations in the factory. They found that Jasic did not have a enterprise union as required by law, and approached the local Pingshan district union to ask about setting up an union and holding democratic elections for union positions. Jasic management took steps in June to set up a union and hold elections but then manipulated the elections for union posts by assigning their preferred candidates to run. While the Pingshan union originally supported the worker activists, they did nothing when Jasic management hijacked the election process. In the end, none of the worker activists who had proposed setting up a union were elected. In July, these activists continued to solicit the support of other workers about the need for a democratically-elected enterprise union. Jasic management responded by firing six of the activists in mid-July.
At this point, things got out of hand as the worker activists began to share information on social media about their problems at Jasic and failed efforts to establish a democratically-elected union. Supporters from diverse groups – university students, former Jasic employees who had been fired or pressured to leave, workers from other factories, Maoists – began to show up at the factory gates calling for reinstatement of the fired worker activists.
The hardline police response that followed escalated the conflict. On July 20, the police seized 20 of the protestors and held them at the police station overnight. The protestors were released the next day and went back to the factory to continue the protests along with other supporters. On July 27, the police formally detained 29 of the protestors. This news brought attracted more supporters from different cities to support the workers and those who had been detained. On August 24, police seized about 50 more supporters, detaining some or placing them under residential surveillance, and interrogating others. Most of these people were later released.
On September 3, we heard news of the first formal criminal charges filed against those on this list. Four of the Jasic worker activists were charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” which carries a maximum prison sentence of five years. On September 8, Fu Changguo, a staff member at the labor NGO, Dagongzhe Center, was formally arrested under the same charge. No other criminal charges have been filed against any of the others.
From this chronology of events, we can see that if Jasic management had made a good faith effort back in June to set up a democratically-elected union and started negotiations with workers to address their concerns, this case would not have escalated to this level.
Jasic as a labor rights and human rights case
Jasic now stands as the biggest case of police repression against workers and their supporters since the central government’s crackdown on labor groups in Guangzhou on December 3, 2015. The Jasic case is already turning out to be larger in scope than the 2015 crackdown which resulted in the formal detention and trial of three labor NGO staff for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.” The police have already formally arrested four Jasic workers and one labor NGO staff on the same criminal charge, and seized at least 27 others, mostly university students and NGO staff. Some of these have been disappeared, others have been detained and still others placed in residential surveillance. News about the workers and their supporters is being continually updated online by the Jasic Workers Support Group.
The police have also taken a harder line against suspects in this case than in the 2015 crackdown. This may be in part because of the participation of university graduates from top universities in Beijing and Nanjing, which raises the specter of a worker-student coalition, but also because police seem to be taking a harsher line against collective protests. Multiple violations of procedural safeguards for suspects and detainees have been reported by the friends and family of the detained, many of whom have not been able to see a lawyer. Lawyers need authorization from family members to take on a case, and according to the reports of HRIC and other informants, police are putting pressure on family members not to give authorization and on lawyers not to take on Jasic cases.
Like the 2015 case, Jasic has become both a labor rights case and a broader human rights case, highlighting violations of the right of workers to freely organize and form a union, as well as citizens’ rights to freedom of assembly and due process under the law.
How the international community can help
The international community has an important role to play in mitigating the effect of the repression against Jasic workers and their supporters. Fortunately, many organizations and individuals have already begun to raise their voices in protest. Foreign media have covered the repression as it has grown in scope, notifying the international community of new developments. International human rights groups have publicized urgent appeals to foreign governments and the broader international community calling for the release of the workers and their supporters. Foreign scholars have called their universities to stop exchanges with Chinese universities and academic conferences.
More can still be done. International human rights and labor unions organizations can bring the Jasic case up at the UN and ILO which have mechanisms and special procedures for reporting violations of international labor and human rights principles. Foreign diplomats can make their governments aware of the human rights violations in this case and raise them at meetings with their Chinese government counterparts. At a more personal level, foreign diplomats can, whenever possible, visit affected family members to show support and send a message to the Chinese police that the family members will not be intimidated.
Foreigners naturally wonder whether their actions would be helpful or backfire and make things worse for the people they are trying to help. Many Chinese activists are now making it clear that intervention on the part of the international community is helpful. They note that the Chinese government is sensitive about its international image and cite a number of cases where international attention has ameliorated the treatment of Chinese activists, their families and lawyers.