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A new NGO model for China: Handshake’s practices on labour issues

“The question kept hovering over me for years until I gained more experience in foundations, marketing call centre research and the Internet industry. I started to understand that there is always a solution and as a result I started my NGO career, establishing, at least in my opinion, a new way of working as an NGO in the area.”

—Dee Lee

CSR Asia has been involved in partnerships between civil society and the business world since its establishment over four years ago. In China, one of the major challenges of such partnerships is that each group often does not understand each other’s language. The business world often criticises NGOs for having poor management systems and lacking capacity and financial transparency. On the other hand, NGOs think that businesses, especially multinational corporations, are too slow in their decision making on community projects, or use NGO brands for “green-washing”. Partnerships must be built on mutual cooperation, communication, and then trust. So the burning question is; “Can the business world adapt to the language of the civil society, and vice-versa?”

To build a model case study for a corporate-NGO partnership in China, CSR Asia started a project last year which brought together foundations and companies in order to capacity build and establish new labour NGOs in China. Following a selection process, the best and most capable applicants were chosen to set up two new NGOs that will focus their work on labour issues in China; one based in the Pearl River Delta and the other in the Yangtze River Delta. The thrust of the project was that over a two year period the new organisations would be coached by CSR Asia and collaborate with multinational corporations, which source goods from China. The collaborative projects would formulate and use the new links as a way of learning how to facilitate communication between the NGOs and the corporate world. Companies who become involved in the project would also have the chance to gain a better understanding of the internal workings of an NGO, and benefit from improved labour conditions and standards in their supply chains.

In 2007, the Guangzhou-based Handshake (握手) was one of the NGOs’ that was established as part of the project. Dee Lee, who studied overseas and was a marketing manager of a Hong Kong based investment company, is now the director of this brand new organisation. With the help of three other “Handshakers” who have various backgrounds such as a property development lawyer, a factory worker and a fresh-graduate from university, Dee has taken the initial steps in creating a new model for NGOs in China.

Having worked in the business world for over six years after getting his masters degree in UK, some of you may be curious why Dee is interested in joining the NGO world in China, which is regarded as a tough and non-profitable job? Dee happily explains; “Joining the NGO sector is my ultimate youth dream. Luckily I had a really good time in this very large supply chain city, getting to know the workers, who are both kind and hardworking, by playing basketball with them every night, as well as conducting focus groups on labour issues. I was curious and sad about the lack of communication between the Lao (workers) and Zi (employers).

“The question kept hovering over me for years until I gained more experience in foundations, marketing call centre research and the Internet industry. I started to understand that there is always a solution and as a result I started my NGO career, establishing, at least in my opinion, a new way of working as an NGO in the area.”

Handshake’s approach to being an NGO is more like a social enterprise model. Dee thinks that it may be more suitable for social goals under the circumstances in China. “An NGO is just as important as any other forms of business entity in this populous country of 1.4 billion-people. However, the density of NGOs in China is far less than many other countries”, Dee said. “It is not just related to political system, but also associated with the NGO sector being a developing space. Passion and persistence has been the main role of NGO in the last 10 years. What an NGO needs nowadays has been much debated, but I strongly believe that the development of NGOs in China should focus on management practice and innovation, which helps strengthen sustainability and industry reform.”

Dee believes that running a NGO in an innovative way is the unique selling point of Handshake. As part of a partnership building project, Handshake proposed the development of a labour helpline for various multinational corporations that have sourcing and supply chain links with China. “The symbol of Handshake, as you can see, composes of two pairs of handshake icons, meaning that we shake hands with both workers and the employers at the same time. We are trying to achieve multi-directional communication. It is too early to celebrate any success, but fortunately we have a few cases which illustrate that we are going in the right direction, albeit with challenges and some difficulties”, Dee said. With the helpline up and running, Handshake has implemented an innovative system and online database, which is quite unique compared with the traditional type of helpline existing in China”.

Handshake is focussing on sustainability, capability and an injection of innovation to the corporate partnerships. “The BAS (Brand Alert System) and the On-line Call Centre Module are two key components in the helpline service system. The workers’ hotline system offers a range of communication alternatives comprising of the more traditional telephone number, but also an SMS and QQ (the most popular instant messenger software) access point due to the dramatic changes in contemporary workers’ behaviour. The On-line Call Centre module standardises the answers to workers and downsizes the possibility of adjusting the answer; BAS plays the role of alerting factories and brands to co-operate on the resulting labour issues. We are proud of these two innovative components at Handshake because they really work in practice and are based on easily accessible technologies”.

Of course there are always issues in every sector and the NGO has its fair share of challenges too. One prominent issue in China is that NGO leaders are often too strong and that the other team members occupy a relatively weak position. Public perceptions are often that the leader is the organisation. As a new NGO, Dee has tried to ensure that this does not happen at Handshake. 

“Although it may seem that I am the leader for all the Handshake projects, the whole team inputs into our organisation thinking, trying to bring different approaches to the table in order to strike a balance within the organisation.. When a new member joins in, the system can quickly allow them to become a qualified Handshaker. The capacity of every Handshaker can be boosted in a short period of time by meeting set tasks, deadlines and outcomes. I strongly agree that an NGO should not be dominated by the leader, but rather the system, capability and brand. Handshake has its own system which can make all these goals achievable. If one day I’m not the director of Handshake, the brand of Handshake can still be maintained and serve our workers for social good”.

There can be little doubt that Dee’s business background, and that of his team, is somewhat unique amongst the leaders of labour NGOs in China. “I think our experience in the business world really helped a lot when building the Handshake system and developing partnerships with companies. For example, our project management experience maintains the running structure for Handshake; the call centre model ensures we are delivering the correct information to workers every time they call the labour helpline; and our supply chain working experience get us closer to our beneficiaries. However, we think that our most precious treasure, that which puts the ‘Handshakers’ ahead, is that we share the same vision of creating labour harmony by building an effective and innovative channel”, Dee said. Compared with other grassroot labour organisations in China, Handshake is extending its comparative advantage in communicating well with companies, especially foreign companies, due to the business background and language skills of Dee.

CSR Asia has provided regular coaching and advice to Handshake as a part of the partnership project. In order to ensure financial transparency, CSR Asia implemented several strict policies and monthly financial information is audited by various parties as well. The major objective is to provide capacity building for Handshake and Huaguang, another organisation in Shanghai, for their future development. We hope that this project can be a model that demonstrates a successful case of corporate-NGO partnership which can provide feasible solutions to problems in areas such as labour relations, practices and standards. As Dee suggested, “It’s so far so good, although we are still having problems facing many NGOs across the world, such as fund shortages, direction modification or developing our culture. As we are doing something which does not really have any precedents, Handshake is now following a good path, but it is too early to say that it is the correct one. Hopefully with our innovative approach we can prove that it is right!”

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