HONG KONG — For his role in organizing workers during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Han Dongfang
was arrested, imprisoned and expelled to Hong Kong.
He spent almost two years in jail, contracted tuberculosis and lost a lung. The hardships would break the spirit of many, but the former railway worker is still fighting for labor rights today. The difference is, he's doing so by working within the system.
"We try to depoliticize labor disputes," says Han, 47, who founded the Hong Kong-based group China Labour Bulletin (CLB), which advocates for workers. "We're not trying to destroy anyone; we're trying to build something here."
From a nondescript office in Sheung Wan, an old Hong Kong neighborhood where dried seafood spills out from the storefronts, Han oversees hundreds of lawsuits a year alleging abusive labor practices by employers and local governments. Workers contact him after hearing his call-in show on Radio Free Asia, or after getting a referral from a friend or co-worker.
Han and his CLB colleagues take on Chinese workers' cases pro bono, and in about 90% of lawsuits, they're able to secure compensation or other concessions from employers. These days, the group is seeing more cases of silicosis, a respiratory disease that workers in the construction industry can develop after inhaling silica dust.
Silicosis, according to Han, is a "one-way ticket to death." The condition can cause chronic coughing, trouble breathing and lung failure.
Factory workers in China are susceptible to hazards such as silicosis because employers don't always provide adequate safety equipment, labor activists say. Sick workers might not get access to health checkups. Some workers also find it hard to hold companies responsible because they lack employment contracts. (Employment contracts have become much more common, however, after a new labor law took effect a few years ago.)
For Han, improving the plight of workers in China is an ongoing struggle. But there are signs of progress, he says, because "the fundamental rights of workers to act are getting better.