SHENZHEN, China – A new crop of labor leaders is emerging in China as migrant factory workers increasingly demand their rights and a fair share of the country's now-slowing economic boom.
Disillusioned with China's officially sanctioned labor union, workers are electing their own representatives and launching strikes and protests at a rate that has doubled each of the past several years to 1,300 in 2014. Here are some of these new leaders:
YOUNG AND UNFAZED:
At 27, Qi Jianguang is one of the youngest of these worker representatives.
After working eight years at a golfing equipment factory in southern Shenzhen, he and other workers discovered that management had failed to make social security contributions, a common lapse long, often ignored by authorities.
The plant's 3,000 workers elected 13 representatives to negotiate with management, and Qi was the youngest at age 26. "Maybe it's my personality," said Qi, a tall and lanky man. "I felt like someone should come forward."
After failed negotiations, workers went on strike last July. Qi was briefly detained by police and then released. The strike ended after two days when management agreed to all the workers' demands, a victory they celebrated with a feast, Qi said.
Seven months later, the company fired Qi over accusations that he smeared its reputation and engaged in an illegal strike. Qi is challenging the dismissal at a labor bureau but has little hope.
"We sought help from the official union, but they were finding excuses not to meet us," Qi said. "The government has been useless. Instead, it's cracked down us."
KEEPING IT FROM FAMILY:
As with many ordinary Chinese, Ji Jiansheng started first learning about labor issues through online chat rooms. Energized, he began researching the law and was soon elected to be a worker representative at the same golfing company at Qi.
"I felt some pressure because rights activism is sensitive in China," he said. "My friends were behind me and reassured me everything would be OK as long as we acted within the law."
The two-day strike paid off, but like Qi he was fired several months later, ostensibly because his hearing was unfit for work. He's looking for a new job.
Ji said he has never told his family about his activism, but vows to press on.
The movement needs "unity and organization" because otherwise it is like "loose sand."
JAILED BUT RESOLUTE:
Wu Guijun, 42, spent about a year in jail on a charge linked to his participation in a May 2013 strike but was eventually released without a conviction. He now devotes himself to helping workers learn their rights.
The furniture factory where he worked decided to shutter its Shenzhen operations while offering only a fraction of the required severance. Government agencies declined to intervene.
Wu led a strike of 400 workers — and was jailed and arrested on the charge of gathering crowds to disrupt traffic. "I almost collapsed because I lost my freedom," Wu recalled. "The conditions were poor. I was very depressed and felt hopeless."
Wu went on trial but was released a year later without any conviction. He received $11,000 in state compensation, which he now uses to help spread legal knowledge among workers.
"I don't regret it," Wu said of his time in jail. "And I have less fear now because I have been there. On moral grounds, what I do is right, and I will keep doing it even if they try to frame me."