New focus on trade unions in China

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Tue Feb 6 14:12:02 MST 2001

New focus on trade unions in China

By Erwin Marquit

Peoples Weekly World

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has relations of cooperation with
trade unions of 134 countries. Labor federations in industrial countries (especially
European ones) are developing working relations with the Chinese unions and are
helping Chinese unionists develop more class-struggle trade-unionism ideas in dealing
with foreign-owned capitalist enterprises.

What has been the obstacle to the development of similar relationships between U.S.
and Chinese labor unions?

The historic reason given during the Cold War for the opposition of the AFL-CIO to the
admission of the ACFTU to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and its
support for the denial of visas to Chinese trade unionists to enter the United States
was the allegation that Chinese trade unions were government-run "company unions" that
could not engage in meaningful collective bargaining. Although the AFL-CIO no longer
supports denial of visas to Chinese trade unionists, its view of Chinese unions
remains essentially the same.

Under China's previous system of a fully planned economy, the enterprises were
responsible for providing most social services such as health care, childcare,
housing, pensions, and vocational training. The principal function of the trade unions
was to administer these social services.

Wages and working conditions were established by the national planning bodies with or
without out some consultation with the union leadership on the national level.
Ratification on the enterprise level was not usually considered necessary.

With the economic changes to a socialist market economy, it has became necessary to
establish wages and working conditions on the enterprise level. Provisions for social
welfare remain with the enterprise but now have taken on the character of what we
would consider extended fringe benefits, regulated in many areas by national or
regional labor laws (e.g. 90-day paid maternity leaves, childcare, pensions, payments
to laid-off workers, housing, job training or retraining, health care, counseling on
personal and family problems, etc.)

A rough estimate for industrial production is that the state-owned enterprises account
for one third of the output, the collective sector (including cooperatives, city,
town, village, and county-owned enterprises) account for another third, joint-venture
and foreign-owned enterprises account for about one-sixth and the private domestic
sector, another sixth.

Profits and taxes from the state sector in 1999 accounted for 55 percent of the
country's total revenue. Although the state-owned enterprises account for a third of
the output, they still employ about two-thirds of the urban work force.

The labor laws give workers the right to bargain collectively. They also give the
workers the right to participate in the management of state-owned, cooperative, and
town- and village-owned enterprises through enterprise workers congresses.

Almost all of the workers in the state and other public sectors are unionized, but
only half of the workers in the domestically owned private sector belong to unions,
while thirty percent of the 10 million workers in foreign-owned enterprises belong to
unions. Moreover, not all the enterprises that are supposed to have workers congresses
actually have them.

The wages and working conditions of workers in U.S.-owned enterprises are generally
better than in the state-owned enterprises. It is generally recognized, however, that
the labor laws are often violated in enterprises in China that are owned by
individuals or corporations from South Korea, Taiwan ,Thailand, and other countries
with weak-trade union traditions These also include enterprises to which U.S.
corporations outsource production, legally or illegally

A major effort of the national government of China is now being directed against the
widespread corruption that undermines enforcement of China's labor laws that are
supposed to guarantee payment of wages at or above the minimum wage, occupational
health and safety, limitations on overtime, etc. Another factor undermining
enforcement of the labor laws and even implementation of the collective-bargaining
agreements is collusion of owners or management seeking with local officials seeking
to create favorable conditions to attract investment in their region.

In the past year, Chinese political leaders have begun to speak out with unusual force
on the need to strengthen the role of the unions in protecting workers rights and the
functioning of the workers congresses.

For example, on Dec. 13, Chinese Vice President and Politburo member Hu Jintao stated
that the trade-union work to safeguard legitimate employee rights and interests should
be intensified. "It is necessary to start by solving outstanding problems and to wage
a justified war on some enterprises that ignore national laws, underpay employees
without cause, extend working hours at will, or fail to adopt measures for safety in
production and labor protection, especially those abominable practices that put
profitability before the safety of workers' lives," he said.

According to Li Yonghai, director of the ACFTU Policy Research Office, the Federation
is waging a campaign to extend unionization to all enterprises, but that particular
attention is now being given to the conditions at foreign-owned enterprises. The ACFTU
plans to complete by the end of 2002 the unionization of the 13 million workers who
will then be employed in foreign owned enterprises.

In a discussion I had with him in Beijing last November, he outlined the following six
priorities: guaranteeing labor rights, proper payment of wages, provisions for Social
Security (i.e., heath care, housing, pension rights, etc.), education, access to
scientific and technological skills, occupational health and safety.

Recently, when leading Chinese political and academic figures speak about the causes
of the collapse of socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, they invariably mention
the alienation of the working classes due to the bureaucratization of government and
Communist Party bodies.

The increased attention to the functioning of trade unions, including a recent
decision to form Communist Party units at foreign-owned enterprises is a sign of
recognition that steps must be taken to deal with the problem of worker alienation in

Coupled with this stress is a repeated emphasis that a condition for China's mixed
market economy to retain its socialist character is that the state sector must remain
the dominant sector of the Chinese economy. This relatively recent renewal of emphasis
on class relations in China, if implemented in practice, bodes well for China's
socialist future


CB: Erwin Marquit is a physics professor at the University of Minnesota

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