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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers. 

China migrant workers Shenzhen
A view of Chinese migrant workers' accommodations in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. China's migrant workers, who have powered growth with cheap labor, are showing new knowledge of their rights and political sophistication as they seek higher pay and better conditions. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Government crackdown on labor groups worsens in South China

NGOs have been pushed out of their offices, leaving fewer allies for millions of disposable workers.

SHENZHEN, China — At least a dozen labor NGOs have suffered forced evictions or have had to close offices in the city of Shenzhen in southern China, after their landlords came under pressure from unknown higher authorities in what the groups say is a series of crackdowns that started late last year.

The latest incident was the violent eviction of workers at the Little Grass Center for Migrant Workers by a group of two dozen hired thugs who smashed windows and broke down the front door of the office — all in front of local police and other bystanders — on the afternoon of August 30, a video posted on the group's blog shows.

In Shenzhen, a booming city of 15 million at the heart of the country’s manufacturing belt, around 12.8 million do not have a hukou, the internal registration system that ties a person and their social benefits such as medical insurance and pensions to a specific location in China.

Most are migrant workers, who say companies see them as disposable labor and are not protected by the official labor organizations and the courts in the city. 

“We cannot survive in Shenzhen because there are so many restrictions,” says Song Wenhai, a 44-year-old migrant worker from Hubei Province. “We want to participate but there are so many barriers.”

“China is creating too many laws but not implementing them.”
~Zhang Zhiru, Spring Breeze

The crackdown on labor NGOs comes at a time when the Guangdong provincial government was starting to implement what appeared to be liberal labor policies. These have included stricter enforcement of labor law, raising the minimum wage, encouraging direct representation for factory workers and allowing NGOs to register independently without having an institutional sponsor. 

“We were very excited at first and thought there would be more room to develop NGOs,” says 32-year-old Chen Mao, a representative from the Shenzhen Migrant Workers Center, one of the groups that has been evicted. “But the pressure on the NGOs has raised a lot of questions about whether this is a real opening or just a new series of social management policies — we’re very confused about what’s going on.”

Continued Harassment 

Since the eviction at Little Grass, its members and their families have been repeatedly questioned by plainclothes police officers. At least one migrant worker who helped the group look for a new office was locked out of his apartment and told by police to move out of Shenzhen, the group said. 

Just a day before the eviction, a worker from Little Grass who met to discuss recent pressure on the group but did not want her name used said she had feared such a violent end for the group. 

“We feel very vulnerable now,” she said. “They can use all kinds of legal reasons or could hire thugs to come after us if they really wanted to close us down.” 

Over the last two months, the landlord for the building the organization’s office is housed in had become increasingly insistent that they move.

“I could tell that she was terrified,” the young woman said. “She used to be very supportive, but all the sudden started accusing us of anti-government activity, saying we were [government-suppressed spiritual group] Falun Gong, and things like that.”

In the weeks leading up to the eviction, authorities from several agencies threatened Little Grass with 50,000 yuan ($7,875) in fire safety violations, but implied that if they removed the placard with their name from the office and posted a note saying the organization was closed, the fine would be forgotten. 

Three of Little Grass’ six employees have also been evicted from their apartments in recent weeks. “My landlady told me that the next time I rent an apartment I should not use my real name because I’ve been put on a blacklist,” the worker said.

Zhang Zhiru, a 38-year-old Hunan native that heads the Spring Breeze center for migrant workers, says his group has been forced to close two of its three offices in the past several months, one of which was also threatened with fines for alleged fire safety violations. 

Shenzhen: No Place Like Home 

Since he began working in Shenzhen furniture factories in 2004, Song has lost the tip of his right pointer finger above the knuckle to a saw accident and broken a hip by falling from stacks of