BEIJING (AP) — Police in southern China detained seven employees of a shoe factory this week amid a quarrel over back pay and benefits in a rare case of detentions in a labor dispute, labor activists and workers said.
Police in the city of Guangzhou issued no formal charges, but colleagues of those being held said they were detained Monday on charges of disrupting production.
Chinese authorities typically help broker solutions to labor disputes and rarely detain workers, but the detentions could signal they are eager to rein in labor movements that are independent of unions sanctioned by the ruling Communist Party. China's rapid economic growth has raised workers' expectations for wages and conditions but employers in the export-reliant economy are reluctant to lose the advantage of low cost labor, raising labor tensions.
"It is troubling that the authorities are using criminal law to control labor movements, and I think this is inconsistent with the spirit of the rule of law," labor professor Wang Jiangsong said.
Recently, regulations also have been introduced to limit collective rights, such as striking, for workers and discourage acts to organize, Wang said.
Rights advocate Peng Jiayong said Wednesday that the latest disputes stems from the relocation of the Xinsheng shoe factory in Guangzhou, prompting its 116 workers to demand 5 million yuan ($820,000) in back pay and benefits.
Peng said the workers sought help from the local government and went to the factory Monday after the local government promised a "satisfactory" solution to the dispute. But they were instead met with about 200 hundred police officers who took away workers' representatives, Peng said.
"We thought we were going to get our money back, so we set off for the factory happily that day," recalled Xinsheng warehouse worker Tu Lihong in a phone interview. "But to our surprise, the police — going by some photos — started to grab people, and I was completely befuddled."
Photos posted by Xinsheng workers show police officers inside the factory and riot police holding up shields and guarding the factory. In a standoff with police were factory workers, most of them woman.
Tu said 14 workers were taken away but that seven of them were later released.
Peng said he has been told by a police officer that the remaining seven were detained on the criminal charge of disrupting production and operation, although the police were yet to issue formal notices as required by Chinese law.
Peng complained that the workers have had no chance to confront the shoe factory management. "The bosses don't need to show up any more, because the government is acting on their behalf," Peng said. "All we see from the government is police now."
Guangzhou police did not immediately respond to request for comment. Repeated calls to the city government were unanswered Wednesday.