The Ups and Downs of Chinese Unionists, and the ‘Interests of Humanity’

Kari Lydersen

Unionized Foxconn employees wave flags as they attend a rally at the company's campus in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen on August 18, 2010. The Taiwanese technology firm held a morale-boosting, costumed 'employee rally' after a string of suicides at its Chinese factories turned a spotlight on working conditions.

NEW YORK CITY — Unionization rates in China should make American unions jealous,” University of Macau professor Zhidong Hao said during a panel at the annual Left Forum conference here on Saturday, March 19. Forty-one percent of the country’s 483 million workers were unionized as of 2008.

But independent unions are not allowed, and those workers are all members of the state-sponsored All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which panelists said functions more like a government agency and includes board members and other representatives of employers among its leadership. It’s all top-down,” said Hao.

Exploitative and dangerous working conditions, wage theft, child labor and other abuses in China have received much attention in the past decade, especially regarding the millions of farmers who have streamed to cities for migrant work, where they don’t have the same rights or access to social services as local residents.

The four Chinese professors and analysts on the Left Forum panel cited the rash of suicides at factories including Foxconn and murders and attacks by frustrated workers – including a farmer-turned-migrant worker who killed three people after being denied his wages in 2000; and the 18-year-old migrant worker Wang Binyu, who in 2005 killed four people because he got only 1/100 of his salary and was abused by his boss,” in the words of Gao Xinjun, a senior researcher at the China Center for Comparative Politics and Economics.

But the panelists said a growing labor shortage has given workers more power and slowly increased protections of workers’ rights, as the labor situation has switched from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market,” – with workers being the buyers” of jobs — as Xinjun said.

Xinjun said the military has been unable to even get enough soldiers because they are competing with the labor needs of private enterprise.

The labor pool is much smaller because of the one child policy…so policies are coming up requiring better protections for women and children, [and] quality employment” is becoming more common, said Quinwen Xu, chair of the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College.

But workers protections on paper and in reality are a different thing. Guo Sunny” Zhengyang described the high numbers of fatalities in coal mines, despite the fact that the government does have regulations on coal mines.

She noted that Shanxi province in 2009 moved to nationalize and consolidate most mines, reducing the number of private mines more than ten-fold, from more than 2,000 to less than 200.

Coal mines are among the places migrant workers labor after fleeing the countryside in droves in search of economic survival. Zhengyang said these jobs are relatively well-paying, with more dangerous jobs paying more, and salaries guaranteed” since coal has been in high demand to fuel electricity generation needed for China’s booming industry.

Although it’s dangerous, the migrant workers still want to do this job,” she said.

Zhengyang said that private coal companies rarely have contracts with migrant workers, which is how both parties usually prefer it. At state-owned mines workers do have contracts, but a contract is just a piece of paper.”

She noted that private companies don’t formally provide any benefits or social welfare programs for workers, and from the government these workers get much less social welfare than full-time residents. She said safety conditions in state-run mines have improved markedly, but conditions are still very dangerous in private mines.

And the mental and cultural life of migrant workers is ignored by both private and state-run enterprises,” she said. The development of migrant coal workers organizations and more government regulation of private mines would go a long way in improving workers’ lives. But that’s easy to say and much harder to do.”

Labor law violations are rampant across the country, the presenters said, including involving unpaid wages, overtime violations, abuse and other charges.

Hao summed up the primary labor complaints:

Employers closed factories and disappeared without paying workers, factory owners delayed paying workers for one to 14 months – that happens very often…laid-off workers from state factories felt shortchanged by the terms of leaving a factory where they had worked their whole life.

Even though independent unions are illegal, there is some space for regional centers and other quasi-independent institutions that can help protect workers rights. Xinjun said that since its founding in 2000, the Yiwu Center for Workers Legal Rights-Defending (the name sometimes described differently depending on the translation) had a 93 percent success rate in litigating, arbitrating and otherwise dealing with more than 4,700 labor complaints. He said labor complaints have also gone down exponentially in that time period, he thinks because the organization has preemptively protected rights and helped prevent labor abuses.

The presenters said there is still rampant corruption and lack of transparency within the government, including in the ACFTU and state-owned enterprises.

If you want to get a document, they’ll say Why do you want that? You don’t need that,’” said Xinjun.

Hao called for greater activity by critical intellectuals” in Chinese labor reform. He described an overall hopeful view of recent labor and economic trends, highlighting a recent news photo of business suit-clad bosses bowing as a line of blue-collar workers marched into their factory.

Globalization makes labor and capital more moveable, but capital has more advantage to move more freely. The interest of the workers in developed countries to protect their work may not coincide with the interests of workers in developing countries (where companies are off-shoring their production). But globalization also makes the world more integrated – so international trade unions can recommend labor standards, mobilize civil society…and theoretically as wages increase (in China), maybe some factories would go back to the U.S.

Hao asked for more support and collaboration from U.S. labor unions, including aid in reforming the ACFTU even though there aren’t independent unions. He said:

Rather than focusing on one country’s interests, why don’t we focus on the interests of humanity?

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.