Mr Lee, 52, is the general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and a member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. Like most people in the former British colony, he helped protesters in Beijing at the time of the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. Before the bloody crackdown on 4 June, he was able to bring money raised in Hong Kong to buy tents, fax machines and food.
Taken into custody when troops began their crackdown, he was released a few days later and expelled to Hong Kong. Since then, he has been one of the few people banned from travelling to mainland China, not only for his involvement in the Tiananmen Square movement, but especially for his work on behalf of workers in Hong Kong and China.
In his view, the 14 suicides at the Foxconn plant making i-Pads and i-Phones “are the outcome of a blind and oppressive company policy. Workers, especially migrant workers, are in a terrible situation. They are treated like animals even though they had to leave family and home in search of a job. Deprived of family support, they have to face incredible pressures without help from others. They choose the most extreme way out because they have no alternatives. Here in Hong Kong, we don’t come under mainland laws, and we can put pressure to make sure that companies treat their workers in a humane fashion. There is no other way to avoid suicides.”
The responsibility for the situation “certainly lies with the Chinese government. However, the international community is not blameless either because it is always looking for cheap labour unconcerned by the working conditions in which people labour. This is why we must raise awareness about the situation. We must fight, together, to guarantee workers’ rights. But this, as I said, is of little interest to the rest of the world. The crisis is pushing everyone to go after for the cheapest products.”
The Foxconn case and the media coverage around it raised the possibility of a ‘boycott’ against the company, which manufactures for consumer electronics giant Apple (but also Dell and Hewlett Packard). However, for Lee, “it has nothing to do with it. I think interest was raised when an employee published the terrible contract that required he not commit suicide. And this is even sadder. The problems workers face in China are seen as something quaint, good for a laugh.”
The future, at least on the short run, will have few surprises in store. “China must understand that, to improve itself and the population, it must allow free trade unions on its territory. Right now, this is quite unthinkable. All you have to do is look at how the government treats freedom of expression to realise that Beijing will not let it happen any time soon. Yet, strikes in big plants, like the one at Honda, are a sign of hope for the future. Sooner or later, Chinese politicians must realise that, without workers’ protection, they could be confronted with an unprecedented social crisis.”