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Confusion at the ILO? China's Government Elected to Governing Body as...Worker Delegate

International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF), Statement of 19 June 2002

For decades, there has been a general consensus in the democratic labour movement that the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is a component part of the Party/state power structure in China, i.e. the Chinese unions represent the state (backed by the army and police) and not the workers. For over a decade, the ACFTU has been mounting a sustained push for international legitimacy, in large part to allow it to more effectively support the Chinese state's economic and foreign policy objectives. And over that same period—as foreign investment has flowed into a repressive low-wage regime where the rights of foreign investors are enforced with full police powers—some national trade union centers have gradually modified their view of the ACFTU. Some have even engaged in bilateral activities with the ACFTU, a policy known as constructive engagement.

This policy has produced no evidence of gains for Chinese workers, who continue to be systematically imprisoned for attempting to exercise their right to freedom of association. But it has brought about confusion and a creeping legitimization of the ACFTU. The consequences of this process were apparent in last week's vote by a divided Workers' Group at the International Labour Conference where a small majority decided to give the ACFTU a seat as an alternate worker delegate on the ILO Governing Body. This vote will unavoidably be seen as a softening of international labour's commitment to defending the right of Chinese workers to independent trade unions.

It is no surprise that criticism by governments of China's abysmal rights record has diminished in inverse proportion to the flow of foreign investment profiting from repression. But on this occasion it was worker delegates, not governments, who elected the ACFTU—part of a state structure that rejects ILO Conventions on freedom of association—to a seat on the governing body of an organization whose mandate consists, in part, of defending the principle of independent trade unions for workers.

The ACFTU's growing international recognition, formal or de facto, occurs at time of unprecedented worker protest and mobilization in China, as workers seek to defend themselves against the consequences of massive restructuring, unemployment, and the consequences of a free hand for transnational investors. This spring, tens of thousands of workers in the oil and metal industries launched sustained struggles for their rights as workers, and attempted to form independent organizations to negotiate with the state and its managers. The workers' leaders have been jailed—with the acquiescence of the ACFTU—but their protests and demonstrations continue.

Against this background, enhanced recognition of the ACFTU—an organization which refuses to defend working class victims of state repression—sends an unmistakable message to Chinese workers that their demand for independent unions must remain subordinate to another agenda.

Every capitulation requires a strong dose of amnesia to facilitate acceptance. International supporters of recognition of the ACFTU can forget its statutory obligation to uphold the people's democratic dictatorship, uphold the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, uphold Marxist-Leninist-Maoist-Deng Xiaoping Thought, uphold reform and opening up.... Chinese workers cannot. Supporters of constructive engagement can forget the close links between the army, police and security services and the ACFTU. Chinese workers cannot. Trade union diplomats visiting China can forget the dangerous working conditions in China which result from the absence of genuine trade unions in the enterprises, claiming tens of thousands of workers' lives each year. Workers cannot. Proponents of critical dialogue can ignore the vulnerable position of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), the only independent organization of workers in China. Hong Kong workers cannot, and they can hardly rejoice in last week's vote by their sisters and brothers at the ILO.

China's working women and men will continue struggling for their rights because, as workers, they have no choice. The protests this spring are the beginning of an even larger and more broadly based workers' movement, a movement which will inevitably challenge the ACFTU as well as the Party/state and its repressive apparatus. Workers remember, and they will be asking the proponents of amnesia which side they were, and are, on.

The ACFTU has quickly learned how to present an acceptable international face and to skilfully exploit international confusion. The seat they eventually got—previously held by Israel's trade union federation Histadrut - was carefully targeted to capitalize on widespread opposition to Israel's policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. Those national centers who felt a vote against the Sharon government could be expressed by voting to substitute an organ of repression the ACFTU—for a trade union—the Histadrut—fell for the ploy and became complicit in the opportunism. They are guilty of confusion, at best, and a serious lack of principle at worst. Just as Chinese workers are being told that their aspirations must take a back seat to an anti-worker diplomatic agenda, Israel's trade unions—one of the few independent labour movements in the region—are being told they must pay for the actions of a right-wing government. Amnesia and confusion have substituted for principle, and workers everywhere will have to pay the price.

One defining characteristic of opportunism is an inability to wait. Just as some would substitute dubious codes of conduct and similar schemes for real trade unions in China, union representatives who should know better have chosen to give legitimacy to a state-controlled apparatus for disciplining Chinese labour at a moment when Chinese workers are challenging the apparatus of power in that country.

Those who voted the ACFTU as worker delegates on to the ILO's Governing Body no doubt have another explanation. They must certainly hope that Chinese workers will exhibit collective amnesia when they finally throw off the ACFTU and the state apparatus that prevents them from organizing the independent unions they aspire to. When that happens, as it surely will, Chinese workers will be asked to erase all memory of this event and of their understanding of what defines a sell-out as—a sell-out.