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

Labour activists are regularly harassed and groups shut down while internal migrant workers continue to be discriminated against. Child labour has been estimated to be on the increase as a result of the economic crisis and companies trying to evade recent law reforms. Health and safety legislation is routinely ignored and accidents covered up. 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.


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).


Background: The year 2010 again witnessed an increased number of labour disputes and collective actions. A wave of strikes in the electronics and automobile industry took place in the summer with several major victories for workers. The economy continues to grow despite a major dip at the start of the financial crisis. Corruption remains endemic. Massive media and internet censorship as well as repression of critical civil society groups continued. In December the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a veteran pro-democracy dissident, reportedly led to a crackdown on activists.

Forced labour – disabled workers enslaved in factory: 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. 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 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 2010. For example, in May 2010 police rescued 34 people forced to work at a brick kiln in Hebei province, and in December media reported the discovery of 11 disabled workers at a building materials plant, Jiaersi Green Construction Material Chemical Factory in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region. The workers had allegedly been beaten regularly and ate the same food as the factory dogs. None of those employed at the factory had ever been paid even though some had been working for four years. Workers attempting to escape had also been beaten. The company owner stated that he had paid an agency a lump sum of 9,000 Yuan (USD 1,350) for the delivery of five of the workers and then an additional 300 Yuan per worker per month.

In 2007 a major investigation, instigated by the parents of missing children, found at least several hundred abducted minors and disabled workers forced to work for little or no pay. Estimates state that some 53,000 migrant workers had been employed in more than 2,000 illegal brick kilns in Shanxi alone.

Role of the official Chinese trade union: The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is the sole trade union body allowed to exist. Its role and the supervision of higher level branches over lower level branches was strengthened in the 2008 legislation, especially in resolving labour issues and helping promote the nationwide development of a "harmonious society" and a "harmonious workplace". It works primarily on wage arrear campaigns, membership drives, pushing for wage increases, philanthropic work and encouraging collective consultation with employers and within industrial sectors.

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.

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. Despite the potential repercussions there are increasing numbers of grassroots enterprise unions either formed by the workers themselves or prompted by official organising campaigns that evolved into something resembling 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 All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) committees. "Paper unions" essentially created by management and local ACFTU officials continue to be widespread with many workers unaware of the existence of a trade union in their enterprise.

However, 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. Also, in the wake of its inaction during the strikes at Honda, the union there agreed to hold elections directly for its enterprise officials as demanded by workers.

Hong Kong businesses have lobbied hard against draft laws on collective bargaining in Guangdong and Shenzhen city despite increasing unrest there. Their lobbying reportedly led to major revisions in the Shenzhen legislation, including a rise in the proportion of workers needed for collective negotiation.

More strikes, and more violence and criminal charges: 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 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. Strike organisers and independent labour activists also face the administration threat of re-education through labour. Though in principle limited to three years, in practice these periods of forced labour can be extended without recourse to the criminal justice system.

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.

Support for workers' grievances including those of internal migrant workers: The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is not involved in the 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 visible 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 such as in Africa but also those in the Middle East. Chinese workers who complain of poor conditions have faced repercussions on their return to China.

Workers beaten during protest: On 15 January around 10,000 workers at a factory owned by United Win (China) Technology, in Jiangsu, a subsidiary of the Taiwanese company Wintek Group, went on strike in protest against a pay cut and poor work-safety environment. Hundreds of police officers in riot gear charged and beat the demonstrators, including the female workers. Over 100 workers were reportedly injured.

Local sources also noted that workers have shown signs of poisoning due to exposure to chemical substances during production without adequate protection. At least 40 of them were still in hospital by the end of the year. One worker stated that three workers had died while some were paralysed as a result of the poisoning. The company stated that it was not a strike but "a misunderstanding".

Labour activists detained and incarcerated: In late January 2010, Hunan authorities sentenced Luo Xi to two years' reeducation through labour (RTL) for "disrupting social order." Luo Xi, a resident of Shaoyang city, Hunan province, was detained in Beijing on 8 January 2010 and reportedly held in criminal detention upon his return to Shaoyang for taking part in a December 2008 teachers' strike in Hunan to demand wages and benefits comparable to those given to civil servants. While in detention he was reportedly forced to work 16 hours per day and only allowed to sleep four hours per night.

On 8 February 2010, the Shenzhen Intermediate People's Court sentenced Xue Mingkai, a 20-year old factory security guard, to 18 months in prison on charges of "subversion of state power." He was first detained in Bao'an, Shenzhen on 9 May 2009 and formally arrested on 15 June 2009. The charges claim that in the summer of 2006, Xue had planned to organise a "China Democratic Workers' Party" online and that he had joined the overseas China Democracy Party (CDP) in 2009 and recruited other individuals.

On 30 March Xiao Qingshan, a labour activist, was accused of disturbing public order and detained for seven days of administrative punishment by the Yuexiu branch of the Guangzhou Municipal Public Security Bureau during an environmental protest. Xiao was previously detained in 2009 for attempting to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre anniversary, and in October 2007 he was detained for ten days in Dongguan reportedly for efforts to collect wages on behalf of migrant workers.

According to media reports, on 20 October 2010 Zhao Dongmin, another labour activist, was sentenced to three years in jail for "gathering a crowd to disrupt social order". Zhao was first arrested in August 2009 after organising over 380 workers from about 20 state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to form a labour rights group (the Shaanxi Union Rights Defence Representative Congress) to monitor the restructuring of SOEs and report corruption and abuses of power. The group was officially banned in July 2009.

Labour unrest at car plants: Production lines were stopped in a strike at the Foshan Honda plant in May. The strike led to Foshan Honda eventually offering 1,900 workers in Foshan a 24 to 32% pay raise. The strikers were prepared to accept an increase of their monthly wage by 800 Yuan and nothing less. After an initial strike on 17 May Honda persuaded the workers to return to work the next day promising to consider the demands. However, when no deal had been struck by 21 May, the workers went back on strike. Anticipating retaliation and no support from the official trade union, the two workers who led the strike, Tan Guocheng and Xiao Lang, quit and left the workplace not long after the strike. The negotiation representatives elected by the workers were also subject to pressure from both management and the government. On 4 June, after negotiations involving the local government in Foshan and Japanese executives, Honda agreed to the large pay raise, though short of the workers' demands.

In June some 1,500 workers at the Honda Lock factory in Guangdong disrupted production for a week over pay. The dispute was finally resolved with management agreeing to increase wages. Previous strikes at Guangqi Honda were also resolved. In July, strikes broke out at another Honda parts factory, Sumitec Co. in Foshan, after workers demanded higher pay rates which they had calculated after researching comparative rates in the region. They also asked the company to apologise over its threats to fire 90 workers involved in the complaint and to promise not to lay off any employees for the next two years.

Strikers were also calling for the election of workers' own representatives and the re-election of trade union officials after the union had done nothing to support them, siding instead with management. With the intervention of the upper level trade union, re-elections of the trade union officers were held at the Foshan Honda plant after the strike.

Hundreds of further strikes were reported during May, June and July in car manufacturing and electronics in the south but also in Shanghai and Tianjin, and included strikes at other Honda and Toyota factories.

Foxconn suicides and strikes: In May a wave of worker suicides was reported at the Foxconn Technology Group in Shenzhen, which manufactures for major computer companies including for Apple. Twelve workers jumped from the buildings or attempted to do so because of harsh working conditions and management practices. Ten died and the other two were seriously injured. The Foxconn group employs a total of nearly 800,000 workers in various plants in China. At least two more workers committed suicide later in 2010. Media reports state that Ma Xiangqian, the first worker to die in 2010, was 19 years old. He had worked an average of almost 10 hours a day with total pay averaging around USD 1 an hour.

In November up to 7,000 workers at the Foxconn Premier Image Technology (China) Ltd in Foshan staged a strike over low pay. Workers reported that they had been threatened with dismissal if they did not return to work.

A report based on interviews with over 1,700 workers found that Hon Hai, Foxconn's parent company, had long working hours, a "militaristic" work culture and mass employment of low-wage vocational college students and interns on production lines to cut costs. In the last few years many companies and multinationals such as Hon Hai have recruited from Chinese technical and vocational schools, paying lower wages and skimping on benefits. Hon Hai and Foxconn both dismissed the report.

Since the suicides, Hon Hai has pledged to improve the livelihood of its Chinese workers, but workers continue to claim excessive work. Probably as a result of poor publicity and rising labour costs, Foxconn is shifting its manufacturing bases from the south to poorer inland provinces.

Short term contract work increasing – workers detained: The use of flexible work contracts and sub-contracting continues to increase. The 2008 labour contract law regulates this area, but many companies have begun to seek imaginative ways to circumvent the regulations. On 1 August 2010 four electric power workers from rural Hunan sat down near the entrance to a Beijing University, and each cut off the tip of his little finger. The action came after a year of petitions and protests by 19 workers protesting unfair dismissals by their de facto employer, the county Power Bureau. In order to avoid fulfilling the requirements of the 2008 law and avoid paying them the benefits owed to a state employee, the Bureau had transferred them from regular employment to temporary contract worker status without their knowledge. When the workers protested the move, the company fired them for allegedly using company time to protest this demotion. The workers had previously tried to take their case to various courts and official offices but had received no support. After the event in Beijing the workers were forcibly taken back to Hunan and detained for periods of seven to fifteen days for disturbing public order.

Representatives of Gold Peak Battery workers attacked: On 24 August over a hundred workers protested outside the Gold Peak battery factory in Huizhou over the company's inaction during negotiations for compensation of workers poisoned by cadmium during battery production. That night several worker representatives were surrounded and beaten by around 300 unknown thugs. Some of the leaders, including Yu Shaolan and Xian Fang, were seriously injured and had to be hospitalised. Workers at the factory reported that the men beating them claimed they had been paid 50 Yuan a day to do so.

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

Migrants protest after worker beaten to death: On 10 October in Sichuan Province, over 3,000 workers protested against the beating to death of at least one migrant construction worker asking for back pay by the employer. The workers clashed with some 1,000 police, and about a dozen protesters were arrested. The demonstration broke up following promises of action by the local police.

On 9 October, eight migrant construction workers had asked their construction company, Jiaxun Labour Service Company, for their back pay but were beaten as a response. One man, Lei Yong, died as a result of the beating while another was sent to hospital.

Sanyo workers in Shenzhen stage strike – workers beaten: In November over 1,000 workers at the Sanyo Huaqiang Laser Electronics in Shenzhen held a one-day strike over poor working conditions and a planned merger. It was also claimed that the predominately female workforce was paid at least 50% less than male workers. The action blocked the adjacent highway. Anti-riot police were called in, and two workers were reportedly beaten and detained. The strike ended after management agreed to negotiate.

Migrant workers in construction abused with little chance of redress: Institutionalised discrimination against migrant workers from rural areas remains a serious problem despite recent legislation. They suffer from low wages and excessive working hours. This is especially holds for migrants working in construction sites and small construction venues were they have little avenues for redress in the event of non-payment of wages or other abuses.

For example, in December a group of over 30 young men attacked a group of migrant workers, one a woman in her 80s, with knives and iron pipes in Shanghai. The workers were seeking payment of unpaid salaries and had been occupying a third-floor office in the building for several days in protest against the owner, who they said owed them salaries totalling about two million Yuan (USD 300,548) from a construction project four years ago. Before the attack the case was being handled in a local court.

This 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.