Hundreds of workers at a Hong Kong-owned toy factory in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen have been protesting since last week after the owner "disappeared," leaving their wages unpaid.
Workers at the Shanghe Jianming Toy Factory in the city's Bao'an district first discovered that their Hong Kong boss, identified only by his surname Deng, was nowhere to be found, they told RFA.
"Some people are sleeping out on the street next to the factory gates, or in the road, and many are hungry," a worker surnamed Shen told RFA.
"[The police] have sent a lot of people to surround the workers."
Photos of the scene seen by RFA showed rows of people sleeping on sheets of cardboard by a factory wall, and rows of police guarding a street with barriers placed on it.
An official who answered the phone at the Bao'an district labor bureau said the local authorities had sent a team to the factory to listen to the workers' complaints.
"The mood of the workforce has stabilized now, and they have gone back inside the factory gates," the official said. "Our leaders and government officials are there too, dealing with the situation."
Overtime and severance owed
Shen said many workers are owed overtime and severance pay under Chinese labor law.
"Some people have been working here for more than a decade, and they should get severance, but they haven't received it," he said.
A worker who gave only a nickname A Quan said the workers had realized something was amiss when they spotted the factory's remaining management team selling off raw materials on the quiet.
"Somebody saw them, and grabbed them," A Quan said. "They were selling off the raw materials so [we think] they definitely knew that the boss had already absconded."
Workers have also marched to municipal government headquarters since their factory boss failed to appear at work on Thursday.
"We went to the Shenzhen municipal government from here in Bao'an," Shen said. "We marched over there on foot; some people even fainted."
"By the time we arrived there, it was dark, and we didn't manage to meet with anyone."
Shen said workers are highly suspicious of their boss' motives for leaving, as the order book was full before his departure.
"We were all doing overtime every day, and we had to work without a break," Shen said. "[We think the overtime pay] is why the boss ran away; it had nothing to do with the health of the business."
He said demonstrations by several hundred workers on Monday had prompted promises of a 2,000 yuan payout from the government, requiring a signature, for each worker, although many people are suspicious that this might mean renouncing any other claim on the company.
"They said they'd give us 2,000 yuan just so we have something to live on, but we don't know how they will deal with the salary that is owed us," Shen said.
"We had to sign for it and have our photo taken, like criminals, and they covered up the document that we were signing so we couldn't see what it was," he said, adding that most people had refused to sign.
According to workers, there is no sign that the factory is closing down.
"The place is a mess, and the boss still has some containers parked there," Shen said.
China has seen 1,723 industrial disputes since the beginning of the year, 267 of which have been clustered in the once-booming manufacturing regions of Guangdong, the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin said.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is charged with protecting workers' rights, but independent labor groups and workers say it has a poor track record when it comes to negotiating with management and government officials.
Meanwhile, rights groups say police are increasingly employing criminal charges as a means of silencing peaceful activism on almost any topic.
Authorities in Guangdong are currently holding independent labor activist Liu Shaming, 57, on suspicion of subversion after he campaigned for workers' rights, his lawyer told RFA on Tuesday.
Lawyer Wu Kuiming said Liu's detention on charges of "incitement to subvert state power" is the result of a top-down crackdown on non-government organizations (NGOs) in recent months.
"It's partly because he was active in promoting labor rights ... but also because he wrote a diary of his experience of the June 4, 1989 [massacre]," Wu told RFA.
Fellow labor activist Peng Jiayong said Liu had been denied visits from friends or lawyers in the first five months of his detention, and that the charges against him are likely to be a form of political revenge.
"Liu Shaming helped the workers to negotiate with the factory management successfully, so that they were awarded compensation," Peng said. "Maybe somebody wants revenge."
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.