Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 January 2018, 16:10 GMT

2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - China

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 6 June 2012
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - China, 6 June 2012, available at: [accessed 17 January 2018]
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: 1,341,330,000
Capital: Beijing

ILO Core Conventions Ratified:

100 (Equal Remuneration for Work of Equal Value (1951))
138 (Minimum Age for Employment (1973))
182 (Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999))

Reported Violations – 2012

Threats: 5
Injuries: 22
Arrests: 24

Documented violations – actual number of cases may be higher


Labour activists and rights groups are regularly harassed while internal migrant workers continue to be discriminated against. Child labour is believed to be on the increase as a result of the relative slowing down of the economy amidst the global recession and law evasion from companies, including multinationals. Despite the threat of arrest and massive restrictions on freedom of association and the right to strike, many workers undertake industrial action to claim unpaid wages, end corruption, demand better working conditions and wages and increasingly to call for genuine company unions.


2011 witnessed an increased number of labour disputes and collective actions – in the manufacturing province of Guangdong for example some 300,000 cases were reported in 2011, almost three times the amount in 2007. Civil society unrest and strikes continued while corruption remains endemic. Media and internet censorship and the extensive repression of critical civil society groups continued. China formally overtook Japan to become the world's second-largest economy although domestic inflation and price increases were the source of discontent for ordinary workers.

A report issued in January by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) outlined over 80 restrictive orders issued in 2010 and highlighted the continued arrest and sentencing of journalists who fail to observe internal censorship rules on the reporting of protests and strikes alongside other sensitive events.

Trade union rights in law

Chinese labour laws fall short of international standards. 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 comprehensive 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).

Link to additional detailed information regarding the legislation on the ITUC website here

In practice

Forced labour:

Forced labour is prohibited but occurs in commercial enterprises and labour camps. China imposes forced prison labour as a form of "re-education through labour", which is an administrative punishment often used for petty criminals, dissidents and labour activists and which avoids the judicial system and its relative protection. A similar forced labour system for "rehabilitation" is in force for drug addicts. Trafficking in human beings is also prohibited by law but remains a serious and growing problem. There has not been much progress in prosecuting traffickers and in protecting and assisting victims of trafficking.

Reports of forced labour continued to emerge in 2011. For example, in May, it was reported that prisoners in northern China had been forced to spend nights working as online gamers for virtual gold. In September, a group of around 30 disabled men were freed from a brick kiln in the central province of Henan after an investigation by an undercover television reporter. The reporter disguised himself as a mentally disabled person near a local train station and was sold to Wan Chengqun, a kiln operator in Zhumadian, for 500 yuan (USD8) and later transferred to a kiln from which he escaped. Some of the men rescued had been forced to work for many years without pay, enduring beatings and poor food and living conditions.

In April, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a factory owner and his wife who used a group of mentally disabled people as slave labour for more than four years were sentenced to four and half years and two years in prison. Reports said at least a dozen workers, eight of them mental disabilities, were forced to work without pay and with no protective equipment. The workers had been supplied by a shelter for homeless people in a neighbouring province. The China Association of Mentally Handicapped People has reportedly found similar cases in ten different provinces.

Role of the official Chinese trade union: The ACFTU played a significant role in the drafting of the 2008 Labour Contract Law and in implementing regulations, and it continues to focus its efforts on organising branches in private companies and Asian multinationals. It focused efforts in 2011 on wage bargaining.

Attempts to establish independent trade unions repressed: No independent trade unions are allowed. Organisers of workers' groups or protests are often arrested, and some are sentenced to terms of imprisonment (officially called "reform through labour", or "lao gai") after criminal trials that 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. Strikers often are detained for a few days or weeks to avoid any risk of martyrdom for long-term detainees. 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 labour activists can be charged with "disclosing state secrets" for their work.


The number of strikes – both spontaneous and organised, but without the official recognition of the union – has continued to increase, especially among private enterprise workers. Privatisation and the ensuing redundancy it engenders is a major cause of labour unrest for state-owned enterprise workers while low pay, unpaid wages and poor working conditions are among the largest causes of strikes in the private sector. Figures suggest that each day around 1,000 workers are involved in industrial action in Guangdong Province alone.

Strikes and collective protests are often dispersed violently by armed police, and prominent strikers are picked up by the police and warned or charged with public order offences, traffic violations, breaking the law on parades and demonstrations, or more rarely serious political charges. Companies regularly dismiss and blacklist workers who have led or participated in strikes. In some instances, companies also hire men to beat and threaten workers protesting missing wages or taking other forms of industrial action, often with deadly results.

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. In response to the labour unrest, there have also been increases to the minimum wage figures in many regions.

Official union support for workers' grievances: The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has not been involved in a majority of disputes and collective actions in the major manufacturing zones where most private business is located and where most of the workers are internal migrant workers. Only some workers know of the existence of trade unions in their enterprises, and very few would seek assistance from the trade union in cases of rights abuse. This lack of assistance is one of the most important factors behind the rise of civil society labour groups providing legal and other services for mainly migrant (internal) workers. This has led some ACFTU branches to offer legal-aid-related services while continuing to avoid direct engagement in workers' collective disputes and protests at the plant level.

Chinese workers overseas – no freedom of association:

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 in Africa but also in the Middle East. Chinese workers who complain of poor conditions have faced repercussions on their return to China.

In March, around 100 Chinese construction workers protested at the Guangzhou airport after arriving home from Libya. The workers had returned to China on chartered flights from Libya, but refused to leave the airport for fear that their wages would not be paid. The workers said the employer – Hunan Tianying Construction Co. Ltd. – based in central Hunan Province had withheld 15,000 Yuan (about 2,282 U.S. dollars) of salary per worker for their work in Libya. After securing agreements over payments, the workers agreed to leave.

Discrimination and abuse of migrant workers:

Institutionalised discrimination against migrant workers from rural areas remains a serious problem despite recent legislation. They suffer from low wages and excessive working hours. One ACFTU survey found young migrant workers still earn around half the salary of urban workers. This especially holds for migrants working in construction sites and small construction venues where workers have few avenues for redress in the event of non-payment of wages or other abuses.

In April, 18 migrant workers died in a fire while locked in an illegally constructed garment factory near Beijing. All are presumed to be migrant workers. 23 others were injured. The fire led to some 80,000 migrants being expelled from the district which was home to hundreds of small and often illegal workshops. Nearby factories lowered their salaries to mop-up the now unemployed migrant workers. In June, alleged rumours of the beating to death of a pregnant migrant hawker led to three days of rioting in south China. At least 19 migrants were reportedly arrested although workers report at least 100 were detained. Clashes also occurred in nearby Chaozhou, where hundreds of migrant workers demanding unpaid wages at a ceramics factory attacked government buildings and set vehicles ablaze.

Restrictions on trade union elections and collective bargaining:

Although the Trade Union Law states that trade union officers at each level should be elected, most officials are appointed. In addition, elected candidates are subject to approval by the provincial-level All China Federation of Trade Unions (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 and increasingly by workers. In the wake of its inaction during the strikes at Honda in 2010, the union there agreed to hold elections directly for its enterprise officials as demanded by workers. Despite the potential repercussions there are some grassroots enterprise unions formed by the workers themselves through the use of official factory elections which are of some benefit to the workers. The adoption of collective bargaining to resolve disputes has recently seen a minimal increase. In April, it was reported that a new union established by and for migrant workers in Tianjin managed to negotiate a collective agreement on pay rises, working conditions and working hours with a local labour supply agency.


Continued harassment of the Dagongzhe Centre: In 2007, Huang Qingnan, a worker at a migrant rights centre in Shenzhen was beaten and severely stabbed by unknown assailants. The centre itself was attacked on several occasions and other staff intimidated. Reports emerged in 2011 of the continued harassment and the threats made against the centre and the non-recognition of the appropriate disability status of Huang Qingnan, effectively reducing the amount of compensation available to him.

Taxi drivers and bus drivers beaten while on strike:

During the summer, in the south and central parts of China, there was a series of strikes by taxi drivers protesting rising fuel prices and stagnant wages. Drivers were calling for higher wages and higher fares in response to increased prices. In Hangzhou for example, around 1,500 taxi drivers went on strike for three days in August. In March in Lanzhou, some 5,000 striking taxi drivers surrounded the provincial government offices demanding an end to rising taxes and fines. Their protest was met by around 300 police – several people were injured.

In January, a group of bus drivers and conductors were injured in a clash with police during a wage dispute. The strike began when conductors on various bus routes in Shenzhen demanded talks with management over wage levels and wage setting policies. However, management refused to talk to the workers and the police were called. Clashes erupted and several workers were injured.

Strike breaking and disputes over company closures:

In March, some 2,000 coal miners from the soon to be closed Baidong mine blocked roads and clashed with police over inadequate redundancy payments. One miner was beaten and arrested and taken to the local police station where he was later released. Police spokeswoman reportedly denied that there had been any protest, but said 100 officers had been dispatched to keep order. Earlier in March several thousand workers at the Shanghai Zhengtai Rubber factory protested company lay-off plans and marched through the city.

In January, in Hubei Province, several hundred laid-off textile workers clashed with police over demands for proper severance pay. They were trying to prevent police from allowing the factory owner to leave the plant without promising to pay owed wages and other benefits. The Wuhan 3541 Garment General Factory made uniforms for the People's Liberation Army. It had gone bankrupt in 2007 laying off over 4,000 workers who were still waiting for unpaid wages. The factory was surrounded by hundreds of riot police.

Truck drivers on strike fight with police: In April, some 2,000 truck drivers clashed with police as protests and strikes over fuel prices entered their second day in Shanghai. The drivers, who blocked roads with their trucks, were demanding the government take action about rising fuel costs. According to workers, police arrested at least six people and beat up some protesters with batons. Truck driver's strikes were also reported at various other ports in and around Shanghai.

Electronics workers seeking severance pay beaten by police: On 12 and 13 May, workers at the Nanjing Huafei Colour Display System Co., Ltd. protested over alleged corruption during the factory's bankruptcy. Around 1,500 police were deployed to surround the factory and stop workers from marching. The factory was a joint venture between the state-owned Huadong Electronics and Philips Electronics, and was one of the major manufacturers of colour CRT displays. After declaring bankruptcy, it reportedly laid-off all of its workers and offered to pay them severance payments far lower than the prevailing rates. The workers were unable to negotiate and on May 12, they marched through Nanjing, reportedly headed by the company chief executive. Several people were believed to have been injured after police tried to disperse the march. Web posts about the protest were reportedly deleted immediately after.

Handbag workers beaten on strike: Around 4,000 workers at the Simone Handbag factory in Panyu, south China went on strike on 20 June over low pay and overly strict management. According to workers, police surrounded the factory to restrict access to the strikers. Several workers stated they had been beaten and that management was threatening workers with dismissal if they did not return to work. The strike was not reported by local media in order to reduce the possibility of copy cat strikes taking place as had happened last summer in the south of China.

Electronics workers on strike over discriminatory payments: In December, some 8,000 Chinese workers went on strike at a Nanjing factory owned by the South Korean corporation LG Display, shutting down some 80 production lines. According to quotes from workers, the strike was in reaction to discrimination against local workers who received substantially lower bonuses than Korean workers. Management reportedly threatened to close the factory and prosecute strike leaders while police reportedly instigated several confrontations.

Foxconn – problems remain:

Continued reports of poor working conditions, ill health and protests emerged out of factories making products for Apple. Despite extensive audits, reports state that more than half of the suppliers audited by Apple have violated at least one aspect of the code of conduct every year since 2007. A wave of strikes at Foxconn in 2010 along with numerous suicides of young workers had reportedly led management to force workers to sign a pledge promising that they won't commit suicide.

Around 420,000 workers are employed at various plants for Foxconn. From beginning of 2010 to mid 2011, at least 14 Foxconn workers in plants in the Chinese cities of Shenzhen and Chengdu have killed themselves. Workers were also forced to undertake excessive overtime and had few days off. Poor working conditions have also been reported at many other electronics factories including those making products for Dell, Hewlett-Packard, I.B.M., Lenovo, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Toshiba and others.

Watch factory workers on strike:

In October around 2,000 workers at the Guanxing Precision Machinery Product Factory, that makes parts for Japanese watchmaker Citizen Holdings Co. Ltd. Went on strike over working conditions, deductions and overtime. The strike began after management had suggested changes to payment calculations. Workers had claimed extensive deductions for bathroom breaks. According to domestic media reports, workers were beaten and had their salaries withheld after they started going on strike. On the 10th day of the strike, police were called to the factory and several workers were briefly detained. The following day after negotiations, most workers returned to work.

The workers who had been detained may reportedly face dismissal in addition to any workers who had not returned to work three days after the majority of workers had agreed to the outcome of the talks.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

Search Refworld