The winds of change

By Rose Tang, Weekend Standard, 31 July 2004 / 02:53 AM

The slow giant elevator in a grubby Shenzhen industrial estate clunks open to a swanky office. A red sign above the reception reads: Learn to Change Your Destiny.

Welcome to the Institute of Contemporary Observation (ICO), China's first and largest non-governmental organisation on labour rights. The Shenzhen-based institute, established in 2001, does much more than just observe. It has introduced basic human rights to hundreds of factories and helped more than 200,000 workers throughout China, according to Liu Kaiming, ICO's founder and executive director.

Liu proudly shows me around the office, which occupies a whole floor of a big block that houses small factories. Posters featuring United Nations Human Rights Day dot the corridors and workers are learning to type in front of computers. There's even a movie room where workers are watching DVDs.

This is Liu's new brainchild, the Migrant Workers Community College, which was established in March with 600,000 yuan (HK$565,680) of his own savings. It's a joint project with the University of California at Berkeley in which workers are offered the chance to learn English, computer skills, law, occupational health, and even cooking and Aids prevention.

The centre is an apt symbol of ICO's mission to improve the lot of Chinese workers and just the latest project of this lean, soft-spoken doctor of literature and self-taught journalist and lawyer who has won praise from multi-national companies and international organisations with his unique approach to raising labour standards in China.

Liu's mission is summed up on the ICO website: Professionalism. Independence. Justice. Report the suffering of ordinary people. Promote social progress.

Today is a full day for Liu. After penning proposals to international foundations to seek more funding, Liu is off to deliver a lecture at Customs headquarters in the Shenzhen industrial district of Long Gang before two dozen factory managers.

The lecture is part of his International Labour Standards Advocacy Project catering to managers and owners of Chinese enterprises. In this era of globalisation, he says, multi-national companies are sensitive to public pressure in their home countries and they demand that their suppliers meet international labour standards as a condition for contracts.

At least 60,000 factories in China have come under human rights audits directly from the West, Liu tells the audience. Labour standards are closely connected with your contracts.

The audience reaction is mixed, some appear indifferent while others ask many questions. Each participant is handed a questionnaire and a textbook compiled by ICO.

After China joins the WTO, Chinese companies will have to compete with foreign firms on the same platform. This means Chinese enterprises will have to abandon the mentality that focuses on increasing wealth while ignoring human beings and the environment, the textbook states.

Liu and his staff of 38 have been preaching this message in Shanghai, Ningbo, and Jiangsu, Fujian and Shandong provinces, sometimes invited by government-controlled local workers' unions. The idea is to train workers and managers about workers' rights and labour standards.

ICO foots all the bills for the seminars, even the venue hire fee. We don't charge participants. So some people doubt our purpose and credibility, Liu laughs. A couple of weeks ago, ICO hosted a three-day seminar for all the employees of a factory and even paid their wages for those three days.

We are opening the minds of the government and management. Our strategy is to convince them to discuss modern business methods instead of teaching them, he adds.

International buyers also have invited ICO to visit Chinese factories to conduct corporate responsibility audits. Multinationals such as Nike ask ICO to mediate in labour disputes and even provide Liu with a database of their suppliers. Sometimes ICO staffers enter negotiations with the government.

Labour disputes in China have skyrocketed in recent years and even notoriously under-reported government figures show 58,000 labour cases in Guangdong in 2002, up from 48,000 a year earlier.

The actual total is much higher, says Liu. Strikes in Guangdong this year spread like Sars, Liu says. I don't oppose workers going on strike, but it's not the best way. We don't encourage them to form independent workers' unions, we're not a labour organisation, just an independent civil society organisation.

He says some strikes occur over small issues and can be avoided through negotiation. At other times workers are just fed up and strike without making any specific demands.

His humble upbringing in rural Guangxi province cultivated his compassion for the grassroots but his immediate concern for workers' rights stems from the five years he spent from 1997 working as a reporter and editor for the Shenzhen Legal Daily covering labour issues.

When other journalists were getting rich from receiving gifts, I was visiting factories and hospitals, he recalls. He saw that workers were often badly treated by factories and local governments, suffering severe injuries, poisoning and death.

I had only seen Shenzhen as a prosperous and pretty place. Then I saw those injured workers, he says. I felt this force inside me pushing me to get to know their lives and to help them.

In 1999 he wrote a report to Beijing about industrial injuries in Guangdong that was widely circulated and prompted six ministries to issue an order to local governments to increase workplace safety standards.

Liu also became a self-taught lawyer, helping other attorneys to settle labour disputes. He spent two years researching the plight of migrant workers who are a major force behind Shenzhen's economic miracle. Twenty million workers have migrated to the Pearl River Delta in recent years from rural areas. About 60 per cent of them are young women, according to Liu's book, Migrant Labour in South China, which was published only after he deleted some sensitive content and scrapped the original title, Blood and Tears Behind Prosperity.

During his research for the book, Liu says he uncovered many tragedies. It was a problem of the system. The Communist Party sees freedom and equality as the ultimate goal. But there are few people in society helping workers to empower themselves to overcome difficulties, Liu says. I had wanted to do some research as an academic and influence the public, soon I realised it was far from enough.

The biggest problem with development in China is that most intellectuals still dwell in their ivory towers. We should do what Chairman Mao said: ‘Go to the masses.’

Democracy and human rights were the buzzwords of liberal Chinese intellectuals in the 1980s, a period that Liu says left a deep mark on him. After the Tiananmen Massacre he was jailed for nine months as a student leader in Shandong.

In 2000, some of Liu's friends in international foundations persuaded him to establish the organisation that became ICO. They said without building a team I would not sustain my passion as an individual, he says.

Armed with about 58,000 yuan from Oxfam Hong Kong, Liu established ICO in 2001, registering it as a normal company. I deliberately gave it a vague name so no one would be sure about what we're up to, he smiles.

And he admits that he is treading on shaky ground because of the extreme sensitivity of labour issues. Liu is certain that the State Security Bureau watches him closely and taps his phone lines. They know all my movements and finances, he shrugs, adding that so far no intelligence agency has approached the ICO directly.

We're very open and all our activities are law abiding. His strategy is to co-operate with factories and government.Our work is to help them, not oppose them, he says. We're welcomed wherever we go.

Liu's team of four mediators last year attended 257 labour dispute cases and helped 7,000 workers recover 4 million yuan in unpaid wages and compensation for injuries. ICO continues to monitor the conditions of workers after resolving disputes and Liu even visits workers after they have returned home. Also, he notes, none of his factory audits has resulted in contract cancellations.

China politics is a complicated beast. It's unpredictable, says Stephen Frost, a research fellow at the City University of Hong Kong who has worked with Liu on some projects. Increasing Chinese public concern and media exposure on labour issues has created an opening for Liu, according to Frost.

The WTO has opened a little more space for people like Liu, he says.

Frost adds people outside China see Liu as a repository of information on labour issues and someone who implements projects. They don't see him as someone who foments revolution.

It's very difficult to establish an NGO in China, Liu says. We can't get any bank loans. We're lucky enough that they allow us to exist. There are more than 200,000 NGOs in the country, according to a Tsinghua University survey earlier this year. But most are very small environmental advocates.

China doesn't have the legal framework for NGOs. They can't register as NGOs and can't get any tax exemption, says Hauman Yeung, associate director of the Association for Sustainable and Responsible Investment in Asia.

The country has little volunteer culture or donation culture, he adds. Funding is based on personal trust only.

Yeung has suggested financial models to Liu in writing proposals. When I first met him, I was surprised to see how he could survive, he says. I worry about him but he doesn't worry about himself.

Liu knows how to walk the line. We never oppose the government. We co-operate with all forces, including the government, to work on our projects, he says, adding that the government never interferes with ICO's work.

His international exposure also provides a protective shield, according to Liu. I have had many opportunities to speak up, he says, adding that as well as his links to international companies, he's also delivered speeches to international labour forums.

ICO expanded quickly after its founding. Its annual budget has grown to 4 million yuan and Liu hopes to reach 6 million next year.

The Ford Foundation, Oxfam Hong Kong, University of California, Berkeley, and the Oslo University are ICO's major sources of funding and Frost says international buyers are conducting 5,000 social responsibility audits per year, meaning that ICO is in great demand.

He's the only one out there on the ground. He's seen by international buyers as someone who's fair and can be trusted, Frost adds.

Liu is optimistic about the future. Human rights is connected with business now, he says, adding that many factories throughout China now have human rights committees.

The government has been opposed to connecting trade with labour standards, Liu says. They think multinationals and anti-China forces in the West use labour rights to interfere with China's internal affairs.

But this view is changing. With governments and overseas labour organisations filing suits with the World Trade Organisation for alleged breaches of international labour standards by mainland companies and with worker disputes in China also on the rise, the country feels the need to address labour issues. Premier Wen Jiabao earlier this year issued a document encouraging people to study international labour standards.

They have realised they have to address the issue sooner or later, Liu says.

China has the legal framework to protect people's rights, but those laws are often ignored, Liu says. Efforts are needed to explore those areas—the government, management and workers all need to learn to play by the rules.

China's development is unstoppable. And the arrival of an era of human rights and multi-faceted society is unstoppable, Liu says. I have seen the tragedies, I know the reasons behind them. But I never criticise or complain. We must take action to avoid tragedies, he repeats in English. We must work hand in hand.