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New focus on trade unions in China

By Erwin Marquit, People's Weekly World, 12 January 2001

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 China.

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.