China labour activist freed, says will still help strikers

SHANGHAI, April 25 Fri Apr 25, 2014 1:24am EDT

SHANGHAI, April 25 (Reuters) - A Chinese labour activist has been freed after being detained for more than two days by security agents who he says tried to convince him not to make contact with workers involved in China's biggest strike in years.

Zhang Zhiru's brief detention underscores nervousness among officials about the strike, which began on April 14 at a Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings Ltd shoe manufacturing complex that employs some 40,000 workers in the southern industrial city of Dongguan.

A colleague of Zhang's at the Shenzhen Chunfeng Labour Dispute Service Center, which he runs, was detained separately on Tuesday and has not been released, Zhang told Reuters by telephone on Friday.

Labour activists say the strike is one of China's biggest since market reforms started in the late 1970s. It is already starting to have ripple effects on businesses.

German sportswear firm Adidas AG is shifting some orders from the factory to minimise the impact of the strike, and a spokesman for Nike Inc, which also sources shoes from the facility, said on Thursday the Oregon-based company was watching developments closely.

Zhang had been working with other activists and lawyers to help workers at Yue Yuen organise and press their demands regarding social insurance payments. He visited the Dongguan site on Monday after an attempt last week was thwarted by security agents.

Speaking on Friday from the southern city of Shenzhen, next to Dongguan, Zhang said domestic security agents summoned him to a meeting on Tuesday and asked him to promise he wouldn't make contact with the workers. He refused, and was taken to what the agents said was a "vacation area" in the suburbs of nearby Guangzhou, where they removed his mobile phone, confined him to a room and barred him from making outside contact, he said.

They tried to convince him to write a statement that he was "safe and on a trip for fun with friends," but he refused. He was allowed a telephone call to his wife on Wednesday afternoon.

Late on Thursday morning, he was driven back to Shenzhen, where he lives, and released, Zhang said. He was again told not to make contact with the striking workers.

"They said this would be going against the work of the government," which he was told was trying to facilitate an arrangement to end the strike. "But, definitely, if the workers have a need or if they have some questions and come to us we will still give them opinions and suggestions, telling them how they can better protect their interests," Zhang said.

The Dongguan office of the Ministry of State Security did not have an immediate response to questions about the case. Calls to the Dongguan police propaganda office went unanswered.

Geoff Crothall, at the Hong Kong-based watchdog China Labour Bulletin, said the detentions of Zhang and his colleague were illegal, but not a reflection of a broader crackdown amid a recent wave of labour activism.

"We do not think it is politically motivated or represents a crackdown on labour rights groups in general. Rather, it is a local action in response to a specific issue," he wrote in emailed comments.

Separately, a spokesman for the Ministry of Labour and Social Security told reporters in Beijing on Friday that Yue Yuen had been underpaying its social welfare contributions.

"The related department has already ordered the factory to rectify the wrongdoings before April 25," Li Zhong said. "Our ministry will continue to keep a close watch on the progress of the issue." (Additional reporting by Aileen Wang in BEIJING; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

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