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Rising workers' activism in China

Factory workers across China are staging sit-ins, demanding unpaid wages for "blood and sweat", the Straits Times says. Taxi drivers are surrounding government offices to call for better treatment. Construction workers are threatening to jump from buildings if they don't get paid.

With economic growth in China weakening to its slowest pace in nearly three decades, thousands of Chinese workers are holding small-scale protests and strikes to fight efforts by businesses to withhold compensation and cut hours.

The authorities have responded with a sustained campaign to rein in the protests, and most recently detained several prominent activists in the southern city of Shenzhen late last month.

China Labour Bulletin, an advocacy group in Hong Kong that tracks protests, recorded at least 1,700 labour disputes last year, up from about 1,200 the year before. Those figures represent only a fraction of disputes across China, since many conflicts go unreported and Mr Xi has intensified censorship.

The authorities have detained more than 150 people since August, a sharp increase from previous years, including teachers, taxi drivers, construction workers and leftist students leading a campaign against factory abuses.

The unrest has also affected newer industries, including companies that provide food delivery and ride-sharing services, as workers complain of backbreaking schedules and low pay.

Labour protests in China are common, and to avoid protracted conflicts, local officials often put pressure on businesses to settle disputes. But companies may be more unwilling - or unable - to do so now, as they struggle to find money.

Mr Xi has expanded the party's oversight of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the party-controlled organ that is supposed to mediate disputes for its more than 300 million members but often sides with management. He has also dismantled non-profit labour advocacy groups, which in the past provided advice to workers and helped with collective bargaining.

In a crackdown in Shenzhen in late January, the authorities detained five veteran labour rights advocates and accused them of "disturbing public order", a vague charge the party often uses against its critics. Now, with no independent unions, courts or news outlets to turn to, some workers are resorting to extreme measures to settle disputes.

Despite the restrictions, activists have had some success in organising protests across provincial lines, often with the help of social media. Crane operators across China coordinated a Labour Day strike last year that involved tens of thousands of workers from at least 10 provinces.

Mr Xi has particularly sought to suppress a resurgence of labour activism on college campuses, including a high-profile campaign for workers' rights led by young communists at elite universities.

The activists have used the teachings of Mao and Marx to argue that China's embrace of capitalism has exploited workers. Last summer, they tried to help workers in southern China organise an independent labour union, saying that corrupt local officials were colluding with managers to abuse workers. The authorities have repeatedly tried to quash the protests, leading to the disappearances and detentions of more than 50 people associated with the campaign.




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