Two employees of a non-government labor organization supporting thousands of striking workers in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong were being held in an undisclosed location on Wednesday after being summoned by state security police for questioning, their colleagues said.
Some 30,000 employees of a factory complex owned by Taiwan-invested Yue Yuen Industrial (Holdings) in Guangdong's Dongguan city have been striking intermittently since April 5 over social security payments required under Chinese law, and other demands.
Zhang Zhiru and Lin Dong of the Shenzhen Chunfeng Labor Justice Service Department, a rights organization in close contact with the Yue Yuen labor force, were called in for questioning by state security police on Tuesday, a colleague said.
"The Dongguan police department and state security police called them in to question them as part of their investigation into events at Yue Yuen," an employee who answered the phone at the Chunfeng labor rights group said on Wednesday.
"But we haven't been able to contact them for a long time now."
"We don't know what has happened to them, nor on what basis they were called in," said the employee, who didn't give his name.
Zhang answered his cell phone on Wednesday but declined to comment.
"It's not convenient for me to talk to you; something's going on," Zhang said. "Not convenient" is often used by Chinese activists on the phone to signal surveillance or police presence.
"Let's talk when this is over, OK?" he said, before hanging up the phone.
Professor Wang Jiangsong of the Beijing-based China Labor Relations Institute said both Zhang, who heads the Shenzhen-based labor rights group, and Lin, his assistant, had been gone for more than 30 hours.
"They haven't released them yet. They are being held under soft detention," said Wang, in a reference to a form of detention frequently used to target activists by keeping them under close police surveillance in a hotel or in their own home.
"The state security police have ... taken over some of Zhang Zhiru's chat groups on QQ," he said, referring to a popular Chinese social media site.
"They've even kicked me out [of the chatrooms], and won't let me speak there," Wang added.
Wang on Tuesday tweeted an appeal for help via the Sina Weibo microblogging service: "The reason is probably to do with the direction and rights advocacy Chunfeng offered to workers at the Yue Yuen shoe factory."
"Please can everyone search for them, and release them!"
He said Zhang and Lin would likely be held until the strike at Yue Yuen ended.
"They want to cut off communications between the workers and the labor organization, leaving the workers divided and disorganized," Wang said.
"They want the government and the [official] trade union to organize them; they don't want them to organize themselves," he said.
Concern for safety
Fellow Shenzhen-based labor activist Chen Mao, who founded the non-government Migrant Workers' Center, said he was very concerned for Zhang and Li's safety.
"We are very worried, and we want to find out what happened to them," Chen said.
"But at the same time, we daren't make public statements relating to events at a specific factory, because that would be getting involved," he said.
Meanwhile, Wang said Zhang and Li had helped the striking workers at Yue Yuen to draft clear demands for independent union representatives in a six-hour discussion on Monday.
"I thought that proposal for the election of workers' representatives was pretty good," Wang said. "But now that communications have been cut off [with Zhang and Lin], the workers are now coming up with a bunch of conflicting proposals and demands."
"This is easy for the government and management to deal with, because they can say 'how can we negotiate with you, if you can't even agree on your demands?' You'd better do as we tell you."
"I think that's their logic," Wang said.
The Guangdong provincial branch of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has said it will "take a stand" to protect workers' rights, official media reported last week.
But independent labor groups and workers say ACFTU, which is controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, has a poor track record when it comes to negotiating on behalf of workers.
An employee surnamed Du who answered the phone at the Yue Yuen factory on Wednesday said management was still in the process of "communicating" with its workforce.
"We are still communicating with them and trying to appease them," Du said. "But things have quieted down now."
"We are dealing with the matter, at any rate," he said.
An Yue Yuen worker surnamed Chen said the factory had already agreed to begin paying 230 yuan (U.S. $37) a month in social security and housing subsidies from May, but that workers had rejected the offer for fear that the company would go back on its word once production had resumed.
"They are being very vague about this; they're not speaking clearly at all," Chen said. "We didn't agree to it."
He said unconfirmed reports that the company is planning to shut down the Dongguan plant and relocate in 2015 were also souring trust in the negotiations.
"When the time comes, we won't have a job, and there's no way we'll get the money back from the government," Chen said. "We are demanding that they pay out what they owe us now, even 70 percent of it."
"We don't trust the government or management any more, so we are waiting for the money to show up in our accounts before we go back to work," he said.
"Now, they've gone after our representatives. With them gone, we'll just have to represent ourselves," Chen said.
Yue Yuen's Dongguan plant is one of the world's largest shoe manufacturing facilities, producing sports footwear for foreign brands including Nike, Adidas, Puma and New Balance, and is partly owned by Taiwanese investors, according to its website.
The strike, one of the biggest ever to affect a private manufacturer in China, comes ahead of a major production run that would supply shoes for the summer season in Europe and the United States.
The Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin recorded 202 labor disputes in the country during the first quarter of 2014, mostly in the manufacturing sector, a year-on-year increase of more than 30 percent as China's economic growth slows.
Around one third of recorded strikes were in manufacturing, the majority of which were over wage arrears and compensation linked to shutdowns or relocations, CLB said.
"[This suggests] that many factories are still in the process of closing down or relocating without giving workers a fair deal," the group said in a report on its website earlier this month.
It said strikes in which factory workers demanded pay increases were relatively rare during the quarter, representing less than 10 percent of the total.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.