China convicts hospital workers after high-profile labour protest

China convicts hospital workers after high-profile labour protest

GUANGZHOU - A Chinese court on Tuesday convicted 12 hospital security guards of "disturbing social order" after staging a labour protest last year, sentencing several to light jail terms in what was seen as a test case for labour rights in China.

The guards had been part of a group of more than 100 healthcare workers embroiled in a months-long dispute with the Guangzhou Chinese Medicine University Hospital over labour conditions and compensation.

Cut out of a deal that was eventually struck between the hospital and other workers, the guards on August 19 threatened to jump off the hospital building and were detained by police.

The ruling by the district court in the southern city of Guangzhou, convicting the guards of "gathering a crowd to disturb social order", comes against a backdrop of growing labour activism in China and was calibrated to send a message, said Duan Yi, a labour lawyer and counsel for one of the guards. "They are sending a signal to society at large which is that as workers protect their rights, if they are even slightly extreme they could receive criminal punishment," he said.

While all 12 were found guilty, three escaped sentence. Six were jailed for eight months, which, including time spent, means they will be freed on Friday, and the remaining three were jailed for nine months and will be free in mid-May.

Han Dongfang, founder of the Hong Kong-based NGO China Labour Bulletin, said relatively light sentences in this case were likely a way for the government to save face as it tries to find new ways to defuse growing labour activism without aggravating blue-collar resentment at heavy sentences. "It can be (seen as) a compromise. It's like biting something you can't swallow and then spitting it out," he said.

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