In May 2011, He Zhongzhou quit his job as a journalist and started to pursue his dream of helping poor young migrant workers like he once was.
He set up a cooperative in Dongguan City, a city with over 5 million migrant workers known as blue workers. His ‘Blue Workers’ Cooperative’ aims to help migrant workers find employment, to protect their labour rights, to provide free educational and social activities, and to dig out the workers’ true vocation and hidden talents – to see what else they have got to make a living out of.
He Zhongzhou and eight other volunteers have managed to gather tens of thousands of migrant workers under the cooperative and more join every month. But now the clock is ticking for He to keep funding his cooperative so that he can continue to help the workers and avoid having to shut down the cooperative altogether.
So will He Zhongzhou be able to raise funds to keep the ‘Blue Workers’ Cooperative’ going, as it challenges corporations and the Chinese state?
By Ying Cui
He Zhongzhou, a farmer’s son, migrated to Dongguan with his parents and went to university, which changed his life [Al Jazeera]
The idea of a “cooperative” comes from the West. The industrial Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Spain and the successful cooperative banks and stores throughout Europe have inspired He Zhongzhou to believe that the exploited and discriminated migrant workers in contemporary China would need to set up cooperatives for themselves.
In May 2011, He Zhongzhou quit his job as an investigative journalist from China’s most outspoken newspaper, Southern Weekly, and started to pursue his dream: setting up an NGO, Blue Workers’ Cooperative to do something really useful for his migrant worker brothers. This film is about He Zhongzhou and how he struggles to keep his Blue Workers’ Cooperative running.
During the filming, I lived in He’s cozy and quiet home with his family in Beijing, and experienced noisy and sleepless nights in the industrial area in Shenzhen, where He lives with workers.
He’s father complained that He had not brought any income to his family in the last three years and He’s wife was unhappy that he lived 1,500 miles away from home. Helping migrant workers means He is drifting apart from his own family.
I quickly realised that He Zhongzhou’s ‘Blue Workers Cooperative’ has touched many issues that aim to improve migrant workers’ lives: they have set up an organic farm for migrant workers and encouraged them to learn modern farming skills, they have helped migrant workers set up small businesses in their spare time, they have offered free classes on improving health and finances, and they have also helped to educate migrant workers’ children.
However, migrant workers in China have long been unhappy with their pay, inhumane treatment in factories and lack of equal education opportunities for their careers. They are increasingly launching factory strikes and taking to the streets to protest. Migrant worker unrest is a huge issue that could lead to greater unrest, and they have become a politically sensitive topic.
‘Blue Workers’ Cooperative’, which aims to unite these migrant workers has become a potential threat to the authorities. My cameraman, Duhai, and I were luckily enough not to expose ourselves while working. However, we did encounter a local official, accompanied by a ‘Guo Bao’ (National security of China) person having lunch with He Zhongzhou. I originally had the idea of secretly filming He meeting the local official, not realising that he was accompanied by the ‘Guo Bao’, but fortunately the camera had run out of battery that moment, or we may not have this film.
As a grassroots NGO, ‘Blue Workers’ Cooperative’ starts from what the workers need. He Zhongzhou engaged with these long-ignored people by visiting their homes and talking to them. I was surprised to know that the most pressing thing for these workers is not protecting their rights or improving their quality of life, but something else, which will be shown in the film.
I also witnessed many intelligent and wise workers, who will not give up their dreams, such as becoming a lawyer, a writer or an interpreter. The sharp contrast between workers’ talents and passions, and the boring and repetitive factory work would urge us all to think that after a generation of migration in China, barriers to social mobility still remain. He Zhongzhou and his ‘Blue Workers’ Cooperative’ are fighting against these. He Zhongzhou insisted that migrant workers must be united, then they can gain equal rights as urban residents, decent jobs and decent lives.
In October 2014, Guo Yushan, the founder of Chinese NGO Transition Institute, who is a friend of He Zhongzhou, and who is also a farmer’s son, was detained on the criminal charge of provoking trouble. He Zhongzhou knows that he, himself, is considered a troublemaker too by some in government, but he is optimistic about his future, and he said that he has survived many dangerous times, and he would survive the next too.
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