Victims Organizing in East Asia - Experience Sharing in ANROAV Workshop

Sally Choi

‘What is organizing?’ ‘Why do we organize victims?’ These are very simple and basic questions but the answer is never direct nor easy. During the annual conference of the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational Accident Victims (ANROAV, in the meeting later changed to ANROEV – see Box, p. 40) in October 2010, victims’ organizations from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Koreaand Thailandtried to answer these questions from their experiences and struggles, and the environments that have shaped them. Below are the highlights of the sharing from the East Asian activists. (The experience of the Thai activists was shared by the group WEPT, which after the conference achieved a victory at the end of 15 years of struggle; see the article on page 14, ‘15 Years of the Textile Workers’ Case: What Justice Has Thai Society Gained for Them?)

In China, victim organizing must strike a balance between effectiveness and survival, whether in urban or in rural areas.

‘According to China’s Constitution, the workers don’t have the right to strike. The government does not support workers forming their own unions. We have to use alternative ways. We have to have institutions first, but in China, it is difficult to set up NGOs,’ said a representative from a NGO (NGO A) which is providing occupational health and safety training and legal services support to migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta. To reach out to victims, NGO A also coordinates regular hospital visits and occupational health exhibitions in various industrial areas. ‘Despite all these challenges, we have thousands of strikes everyday in the mainland. We can see that workers in Chinanever stop fighting for their rights. There are a lot of organizations like ours. We are a grassroots labour organization. We spread the message about workers’ rights and get more workers to join us.’

Some experiences have shown that it is very important to organize not only the workers who have already become victims, but also those who have the potential to become victims, and families of the victims. Another Chinese organizer from a NGO, NGO B, which is in a rural province where the largest number of migrant workers come from, shared that they always start from organizing the family. They always go to the villages and visit the families one by one in order to develop a community network, to reach the victims when they have returned to the villages. On the other hand, in Hong Kong, the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims has organized the wives and parents of industrial victims in small working groups so that the families of victims can get mutual support from their communities.

Participants in the ANROAV Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, 2010

Above all, the most powerful agent of change is the victims themselves. The leading NGOs in OSHrights movements in many countries were founded by victims. Mr. Lin Chun-Yi from Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries (TAVOI) shared his long struggles since 18 years ago. When he suffered an accident, he filed a two-year lawsuit and he got NT$2 million (about US$68,000) as compensation. Since then, he has been very committed to labour organizations and to TAVOI. He was active in organizing other victims since the early 1990s, working with trade unions and getting support from the church and universities to help victims to talk to the government and get compensation. They have been bargaining with the government little by little. In the past few years, they have had a lot of development in their work, mainly in occupational safety law. One breakthrough is that workers who do not have insurance are still able to claim compensation. They have had achievements in increasing the compensation level, too.

Comrades from Taiwanshowed us how victims have been gaining power in the movement and working together with supporters from labour unions and universities. Korean OSHactivists from the Supporters for the Health And Rights of People in the Semiconductor industry (SHARPs) also shared similar experiences. Currently in Koreathe OSHprotection system is good but the problem is that, under it, the workers cannot easily get recognition of industrial diseases, nor thus get any compensation for them either. Among Samsung electronics workers, within three years they might develop leukemia or cancer, and these workers are only 20 to 30 years old. When a case gets brought to SHARPs, they make it public. They believe that the problem of occupational disease is one that affects all the people, not only the workers, so they also involve university students. In their struggle, they often have to fight with police, but they think the repression by police can also serve to raise the consciousness of people.

One effective way for victims to spread out their message to all people is through cultural activities. The Korean activist Mr. Young-Il Park from SHARPs shared a video during the workshop, showing how they use songs and slogans in demonstrations to touch the hearts of all the people. ‘When we hold demonstrations, we always make their posters in a small size, otherwise the police will not let us hold them.’ This is one of the ways to pass messages to all people. Using mass media is also a very effective way of conducting OSHcampaigns; however, on some occasions it could be dangerous for organizing. The representative of NGO A from Chinareflected that people in Chinalack freedom of speech. Even if the mass media wanted to blow up any story or case of a victim, the government would likely view the issue as a political issue and try to suppress it. 

All of the sharing of victim organizing came from NGOs; but what about the role of trade unions in each country? In places where people enjoy relatively better freedom of speech and a stronger or longer history of democratic movements, the trade unions and victims groups have built solidarity within a broader movement for OSHrights. In Taiwanand Korea, there are more than one labour union of different political orientations and natures. For example in Taiwan, there are three types of trade union: 1) occupational, 2) industrial; and 3) NGO workers. It was agreed by all the workshop participants that victims groups should try to press the trade unions to actively support victims’ struggles, because the trade union has the institutional power to push forward policy and legal reforms. In China, however, there is only one official trade union which does not fully stand up for rural migrant workers and victims of occupational injury. In the eyes of Chinese NGOs, the union even adds pressure on top of company and government pressure, against workers who fight for their own rights.

Organizing victims to unite not only empowers individual victims and raises their issues in the public, but also tackles the structural problems which deprive workers of their right to safe and healthy working conditions. The common problems identified by East Asian OSHactivists during the sharing were: 1) legislative procedures, 2) enforcement of lawsuits; 3) sustainable living for victims; and 4) provision of long-term rehabilitation for victims. The work approaches of the national OSHmovements in East Asian movements generally consist of: 1) victims’ empowerment through knowledge, awareness and mutual network-building, 2) supporting victims in legal procedures, 3) law and policy advocacy, and 4) taking collective actions such as strikes and demonstrations. The victims’ groups are also trying to getting greater public support and understanding through cultural events and media. Finally, the East Asian comrades also agreed they should support and work with the victims’ groups in the rest of the countries in the Asian region, where many industrial accidents and illnesses have been brought by Korean, Hong Kongand Taiwan investments.

In China, victim organizing must strike a balance between effectiveness and survival.