Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 July 2014, 14:56 GMT

2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - China

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 9 June 2010
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - China, 9 June 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c4fec852d.html [accessed 23 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 1,340,000,000
Capital: Beijing
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 100 – 138 – 182

2009 saw a huge increase in the number of labour disputes and collective actions in China. Massive rioting in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region sparked in part by a factory protest ended with executions for the alleged ringleaders, mainly ethnic Uighurs. Government bodies, including the official Chinese trade unions blamed overseas 'hostile forces' for industrial and social unrest. Despite new labour legislation workers are still banned from organising independently and can be detained and imprisoned for their involvement in collective protest actions.

Trade union rights in law

Despite recent improvements, Chinese labour laws still fall short of international standards. First and foremost, there is no real freedom of association as only one "workers" organisation is recognised in law, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The establishment of any trade union shall be submitted to the union organisation at the next higher level for approval, and the latter shall "exercise leadership" over those at the lower level. The law also empowers the ACFTU to exercise financial control over all its constituents. Furthermore, the legal procedures for registering a union office in an enterprise can be completed without trade union officials even entering the workplace, and branches can be set up in some enterprises simply by carrying out administrative procedures.

There are no thorough national level regulations on collective bargaining procedures, but only on collective contracts. However, a collective contract established in line with the regulations is legally binding. There have also been considerable efforts to set up a dispute resolution system in the last decade.

The right to strike was removed from the Constitution in 1982, and the revised Trade Union law does not use the term "strike" (bagong) but instead refers to instances of "work stoppages" (tinggong) and "go-slows" (daigong).

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2009

Background: The authorities have responded to the crisis with restrictions on lay-offs, penalties for non-compensation, tax breaks and other incentives for companies to hire and retain workers, while the ACFTU was focusing its efforts on retraining and recruitment of members in the rural areas and the provision of train tickets for migrants forced to return home. By the start of 2009, some 30 million migrant workers had reportedly returned to their home provinces while sources state the number of laid off as a result of the economic crisis to be as high as 40 million. Health and Safety on the ground remains a matter of serious concern for workers and the authorities alike. Legislation is routinely ignored and accidents covered up. Workers have little chance of obtaining adequate compensation without lengthy court cases. Work safety conditions in China have improved as of late but mine disasters continue to kill thousands of people each year. Knowledge of and action against exposure to toxic chemicals at work is growing but activists are regularly harassed.

Official statistics for labour disputes showed a significant increase. In some eastern and southern regions, the number of labour disputes in the first quarter of 2009 rose by around 42 % in Guangdong and almost 160% in Zhejiang. The main causes are increasingly issues related to contracts, wage arrears, missing benefits and unpaid overtime.

Role of the official Chinese trade union (All China Federation of Trade Union – ACFTU) and new developments: The ACFTU actively calls on employers to follow the 2008 labour law, while at the same time urging workers to secure a better knowledge of the law. The ACFTU's role and the supervision of higher level branches over lower level branches has been strengthened in new legislation, especially in resolving labour issues and in keeping with the nationwide emphasis on the development of a "harmonious society" and a "harmonious workplace".

The ACFTU played a significant role in the drafting of the new Labour Contract Law (LCL) and in implementing regulations and also made several high profile statements calling on unions and authorities to safeguard workers' interests in the wake of the economic crisis. In addition, the ACFTU continued to focus its efforts on organising branches in private companies Asian multinationals.

Attempts to establish independent trade unions repressed: No independent trade unions are allowed. Organisers of workers' groups or protests are often arrested. Some are sentenced to terms of imprisonment (officially called "reform through labour", or "lao gai") after criminal trials which fall well short of international standards. Others can be assigned to terms of "re-education through labour", an administrative process which bypasses the few safeguards of the criminal justice system. The fear of detention also makes negotiations between workers' representatives and the authorities and employers extremely difficult. The continued use and abuse of extensive state secrets legislation including laws classifying labour related statistics as state secrets means that activists can and are sometimes charged with 'disclosing state secrets' for their work.

However it is worth noting that there are increasing numbers of grassroots enterprise unions either formed by the workers themselves or prompted by official 'organising' campaigns that have evolved into something approaching a trade union.

Trade union elections: Although the Trade Union Law states that trade union officers at each level should be elected, this is often ignored and most officials are appointed. In addition, elected candidates are subject to approval by the provincial-level ACFTU committees. Many provinces have developed, or are in the process of developing, regulations concerning the obligation to hold trade union elections as stipulated in the Trade Union Law.

Increasing strikes going together with increasing violence and criminal charges against protesting workers: The number of strikes (both spontaneous and planned, but without the official recognition of the union) has continued to increase, especially among private enterprise workers. Privatisation and the ensuing corruption and redundancy it engenders, continue to be a major cause of labour unrest for state owned enterprise workers. Figures suggest that each day around 1,000 workers are involved in industrial action in Guangdong Province alone. The increasingly commonplace nature of strikes has meant that despite the ambiguity of their legal position, some local authorities have been less hostile towards strikes and more strikes appear to be successful. For example, workers at the Alcoa (Shanghai) Aluminium Products Co Ltd, an aluminium plant, held a strike in August after they discovered that their company had been taken over by the state owned Yunnan Metallurgical Group Co Ltd. (YMGCL), without them being informed or having their pay and conditions guaranteed. Finally an agreement was reached.

Furthermore, while the Labour Law, Trade Union Law and Occupational Safety and Health Law make mention of "work-stoppages", workers are likely to face a host of problems. They are usually picked up by the police and warned about public order offences, traffic violations, breaking the law on parades and demonstrations, or much more serious political charges. Strike organisers and independent labour activists also face the threat of re-education through labour. Though in principle limited to three years, in practice these periods of forced labour can be extended at the authorities' will.

Although collective actions are not handled or treated in similar ways depending on the local mix of political forces, local governments and company employers often turn to violent repression of worker industrial actions and protests with the large-scale deployment of armed police and riot police as well as ordinary public security forces. In some instances, companies hired men to beat and threaten workers protesting missing wages or taking other forms of industrial action, often with deadly results.

Support for workers' grievances including those of migrant workers: The All China Federation of Trade Union (ACFTU) is not involved in the majority of disputes and collective actions in the major manufacturing zones where most private business is located. On the other hand, it remains high profile in efforts to claim back missing wages for migrant workers, which are a major source of discontent as well as pushing for wage increases and philanthropic work.

Though migrant workers know the existence of trade unions in their enterprises, few of them would seek assistance from the trade union in cases of rights abuse. This visible lack of assistance is one of the most crucial factors in the rise of civil society labour groups providing legal and other services for migrant workers. Some lower level ACFTU branches now offer legal aid services while continuing to avoid engagement in workers' collective disputes at the plant level.

Chinese workers overseas: Reports continue of poor working conditions, including the denial of basic trade union rights and freedom of association in Chinese owned enterprises, including major state owned companies. This is of particular concern in the extractive industry and large construction projects in countries such as in Africa. Chinese workers who complain of poor conditions have faced negative repercussions on their return to China.

Increasing use of subcontracted short term labour: In August, a student part-time worker at a Coca-Cola's bottling plant in Zhejiang was beaten after asking for wage arrears. The student was employed by a labour contract agency and Coca-Cola therefore attempted to deny responsibility for the incident. A Hong Kong labour group reported that almost 50% of workers at the factory were employed by agencies but many worked full time contrary to new laws governing the use of contract labour. The use of subcontracted short term labour is growing.

Shaanxi enterprises union rights' defence congress': Over 380 workers from some 20 enterprises in Shaanxi province applied to the provincial Party committee and regional trade union federation to set up a group called the Shaanxi Enterprise Union Rights Defence Representative Congress which would act as a form of centralised workers' congress overseeing enterprise level worker congresses, unions and enterprises. The aim was to uncover problems and unlawful activity and enable workers to seek collective justice. The organisers stressed that they would not seek to petition or hold protests but instead to organise effective unions for the workers. The organiser received no official response from the authorities but Hong Kong media reported that some of the organisers were threatened by officials who claimed the proposed group was a "reactionary organization," linked to foreign hostile forces.

Teachers strike unreported and censored: On 4 March, in Yunfu, Guangdong province, around 700 teachers protested over low wages. The protest came after the local authorities decided to increase the salaries of its employees by 1,000 a month while giving no raise to teachers meaning that the average salary of a government worker would be around three times that of a local teacher. The protest was reported on the internet but later all pictures and reports of the unrest were deleted by censors.

Casio workers beaten by police during strike: On 6 March, according to an outspoken domestic newspaper, over 4,000 workers from the Casio factory in Fanyu in Guangzhou went on strike over wages. Their protest was met with anti-riot police and public security personnel to return workers to the factory; 20 workers were injured in the process.

Trade unionist sacked from ACFTU hotel for union work: In April, Liu Yongyi, the chairwoman of the Guangdong Union Hotel Union (belonging to the Guangdong Province Federation of Trade Unions Industries Company) was sacked, according to management for professional reasons and because she caused 'trouble'. For most workers, she was sacked for her attempts at protecting worker' rights. Two other union committee members were dismissed after they had helped workers gain overtime payments. Unlike most other union heads, at the hotel the union chairs and vice chairs were reportedly elected by the workers in a ballot. Under Chinese law, union chairs and vice chairs are protected from unfair sacking by various clauses governing the dismissal process.

Coal miners threatened with arrest: In late August, early September over 5,000 workers from the Hunan Coal Industry Group went on strike over privatisation claiming they had been forced to sign compensation agreements about which they had not been consulted. The authorities reportedly declared the strike illegal and threatened the workers with detention and arrest if they did not return to work immediately.

Striking workers beaten in Shenzhen: On 1 September, around 1,000 workers from the Shenzhen Philips Respironics factory went on strike complaining that the factory unilaterally initiated a new work policy whereby workers would lose half an hour of overtime pay, but still be required to complete the same daily workload. Other issues included poor food and accommodation as well as increased work for the same pay. Management reportedly retaliated by firing three supervisors that day and recording the names of those striking. The following day, the protest was met by large numbers of armed police and in the ensuring clash at least two female workers were injured.

Worker representative detained and assigned to term of administrative detention: On 9 September, Ren Fengyu, a representative of retired workers from the Tonghua Steel group, was reportedly sentenced to 18 months re-education trough labour after putting up a poster calling for the legalisation of a Tonghua workers' rights organisation and the formal election of its representatives. He was charged with "assembling a crowd to create a disturbance". Ren had been campaigning for the rights of laid-off workers since 2005 and had nearly 100 supporters.

The arrest and sentencing of Ren was believed by most to be part of a punishment directed at the Tonghua workers in general for the riots and the death of a rival steel company executive Chen Guojin during a protest over the planned privatisation of Tonghua Steel. It led to a clash between some 30,000 workers and police. Chen Guojin was negotiating the takeover of Tongua which would have led to massive layoffs and little compensation.

Scores detained for alleged rioting and violence during taxi strikes: In October, a billionaire legislator went on trial with 27 associates and three high ranking transport and petition officials from Chongqing municipality over allegations of being the masterminds of the taxi strike in Chongqing. It was alleged that Li Qiang, an ex-deputy to the Chongqing Municipal People's Congress ordered drivers in his taxi company to go on strike and also sent dozens of gangsters into the streets to smash working taxis and beat their drivers, triggering similar protests in cities all over China. Observers state that the trial is punishment from the local government for the businessman supporting the strike.

New cases of forced labour: Forced labour continued to be met with impunity as 2009 saw several new cases of forced labour. Two brothers accused of keeping beggars and vagrants locked up as slaves in their kilns received only an 18 month sentence despite the death of one elderly worker from exhaustion.

Imprisonment of labour activists: Independent labour activists and leaders were jailed in 2009 joining those arrested in previous years and who remained in prison and in re-education through labour camps. The ITUC Hong Kong Office (IHLO) keeps a list of detained labour activists.

Workers at Gold Peak strike: On 8 December, around 1,000 workers at factories owned and operated by the Hong Kong based Gold Peak Battery group organised a two day strike at the Power pack plant in south China in a continuation of the long struggle for proper compensation and protection against cadmium poisoning. Three workers were reportedly locked up by security guards while other workers blocked the factory gates. In the aftermath of the protest, on 22 December, four workers were questioned by police over their role in the strike including Wang Fengping. Wang was released after 10 hours while the other three were kept in detention for almost 2 weeks. Wang Fenping was then fired.

Hundreds of workers involved in the manufacturing of cadmium batteries have been diagnosed with cadmium poisoning or excessive cadmium levels. Gold peak management has not reached a satisfactory agreement over compensation, treatment, prevention and support.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

Search Refworld

Countries