It’s just a small grey factory in an industrial area of Victoria with a fitness centre located upstairs.
But since this electronics plant was purchased by China Silian Instrument Group, a manufacturing giant wholly owned by the Chinese government, the workers there are getting a taste of what it’s like to work under a controlling communist regime.
Silian took over from Honeywell Electronics Materials in August and almost right away the approximately 50 employees at the plant began to feel the long arm of Beijing reaching into their workplace.
Workers’ attempts to unionize are being interfered with and their new bosses want to censor what they talk about while on the job.
One of the first directives employees received was that they should not discuss topics such as Tibet, Falun Gong or the wages Silian pays, says Jason Mann, provincial organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).
“The workers have serious issues…but rather than as a first step addressing these issues, after being purchased by the Chinese government the first thing they did is they gave an educational on what things you can and can’t say about the Chinese government.”
While this shows “how out of touch the new Chinese management team is,” the issue of job security, not censorship, is the biggest concern the workers have, says Mann.
Silian is in the process of building a 66-hectare electronics plant in Chongqing, China, a section of which will manufacture sapphire wafers used in LED lights identical to those being made at the Victoria factory.
A team of Chinese employees has come to Victoria to learn the process and study how the sapphire wafers are made, while Victoria plant managers are currently in China training new workers how to operate the machines.
The Victoria employees are worried that when the new factory opens in 2012 they will suddenly find themselves out a job without so much as severance pay.
“They might be training people to do the same job for substantially less pay,” says Mann. “There’s some uncertainty and the reason is that Silian won’t provide guarantees as to what the future looks like.”
To protect their jobs and address concerns such as low wages and job safety, employees have sought membership with IBEW, and a recent union drive resulted in a number of employees signing up.
However, management has been trying to deter the employees by “feeding them a steady diet of negative things about the union,” says Mann, with the result that some don’t want to be seen as union supporters and are afraid to sign union cards.
“One of the main things they’re saying is that we’re a business just using them for their dues money and we really don’t care about their rights. They’ve said that we’re breaking the law by trying to sign cards to get a vote on the union. They’ve called the police on us a couple of times now and in each case the police confirmed that we can be outside and we can sign cards.”
Howard Levitt, a Toronto counsel who specializes in labour law, says in cases like this the IBEW can lodge a complaint with the B.C. Labour Relations Board and apply for automatic registration for the workers.
“It’s usually very unsophisticated employers that act like that because they don’t want the sanctions of the Labour Board and particularly don’t want to be automatically unionized without even a vote,” says Levitt.
David Reid, president and general manager of Silian, says the company “categorically denies” any interference in the unionizing process. He also says no speech restrictions have been imposed on the employees.
“Management has not imposed any restrictions on what people can say. We believe this is a free country and people have the right to express themselves.”
While Reid didn’t want to comment on whether the factory would remain in operation after the new plant opens, it states on the parent company’s website says that upon completion of the factory in Chingqing, the facilities in both countries “will realize the situation of mutual complementary and common development.”
Within China itself, independent union organizing has been systematically and relentlessly repressed by the regime. However, Beijing is backing recent efforts by the state-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) to organize in foreign-owned factories and offices.
But critics see this as window dressing, doubting it will translate into genuine collective bargaining resulting in better wages and conditions for the workers, and it doesn’t include Chinese companies.
For years, workers rights activists have been highly critical of China’s manufacturing industry for its use of child labour, appalling working conditions and forcing workers to labour for long hours with no overtime pay.
David Matas, an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, says Beijing’s efforts to control what Silian employees talk about while at work in Canada is “an unwarranted invasion into the freedom of expression.”
“This is typical of the Chinese government. They have no inhibitions about pressing their censorship agenda and they have no sensitivities or concerns…they will try to get away with whatever they can.”
Mann says the Victoria plant is unique in that it is one of only four facilities in the world that manufacture sapphire wafers, and this is another reason why he believes the jobs should be kept in Canada.
Because of the union drive, Silian is promising to look into pay increases, says Mann. But after the new plant opens, with the workers in China doing the same job for a fraction of the pay, he doesn’t believe the Victoria workers will even have jobs unless they have a union contract.
He adds that although management “is focusing on the huge pay increases everyone’s going to get now that the plant has been bought by the Chinese government,” many of the employees are beginning to realize it just might not work out like that.
“Slowly, I think they are starting to see that the people who are their managers here—the Chinese government—are the same people who are treating the people so poorly in China and trampling on their rights there,” he says.