The Global State of Workers' Rights - China


Independent trade unions are illegal, and enforcement of labor laws is poor. Nevertheless, labor unrest has grown in recent years, and workers have used increasingly sophisticated tactics to force concessions from employers and local authorities.

By law, all unions must belong to the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which functions more as a means for the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to control workers than as a genuine vehicle for representing their interests. ACFTU officials often hold senior management positions in state-owned enterprises, and in recent years its unions have attempted to expand into private companies, including multinationals such as Wal-Mart and McDonald's. Collective bargaining is legal in all industries but does not occur in practice.

Advocates of independent unions are harassed, detained, and jailed. Although workers lack the legal right to strike, they have increasingly asserted themselves against employers. From 1995 to 2006, the number of labor disputes rose by 13.5 percent, with most involving layoffs, dangerous conditions, or unpaid wages, benefits, or unemployment stipends. According to a 2009 study by the China Labor Bulletin, workers have organized informally in recent years via collective petitioning, self-selection of negotiating representatives, and strikes. Such tactics have repeatedly yielded concessions from employers or government intervention on behalf of workers. Nevertheless, in many cases labor leaders continue to be arrested.

Three new labor laws took effect in 2008. They were designed to protect workers, counter discrimination, and facilitate complaints against employers while also empowering CCP-controlled unions. Initial promising signs on implementation – including a sharp rise in the number of labor-dispute cases filed by workers – were overshadowed by the global economic downturn, a lack of independent arbitration bodies, and a growing backlog of complaints.

Due to poor enforcement of labor laws, employers frequently ignore minimum-wage requirements and fail to comply with health and safety standards, leading to dangerous work environments. Factory and coal-mining accidents kill tens of thousands of Chinese workers annually. In recent years, official figures have reported a decrease in the number of workplace accidents. Nevertheless, the death toll remains high by global standards, reported at 91,172 in 2008 and 18,501 in the first quarter of 2009. In addition, forced labor, including child labor through government-sanctioned "work-study" programs and in hundreds of "reeducation through labor" camps, remains a serious problem.

Though the days of peasant associations have passed, other sectors of society remain under CCP control through "mass organizations" similar to the ACFTU. These include the All-China Lawyers' Association (ACLA), which in recent years has taken steps to rein in reform-minded members' engagement with human rights cases and suppressed initiatives by members to increase management accountability. In July 2007, the Beijing Lawyers' Association (BLA) dissolved its Committee on Constitutional and Human Rights Affairs after members repeatedly undertook sensitive rights cases and exerted increasing domestic influence. In September 2008, several lawyers in Beijing called for democratic elections and other reforms to increase members' influence over the BLA's management. The group's leadership categorically rejected the calls and warned that organizing such an initiative was illegal. After the lawyers continued to push for reform, several were forced to resign from their firms, and in 2009 others were pushed out of the profession through the nonrenewal of their licenses to practice law. In March 2009, the authorities shut down Yitong Law Firm, which was closely associated with the reform initiative. Although the closure was intended to last six months, the firm remained shuttered at year's end.

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