China's Labor Movement: A Bigger Role to Play

Original source: Beijing Review

Trade unions face heavy tasks of better representing and safeguarding employee interests

According to Chinese tradition, all debts should be paid before the New Year. However, two recent cases of migrant workers being forced to go to extremes to ask for their wages highlight rising tensions between labor and management in the country.

A post with photos of dozens of migrant workers kneeling down in front of the gate of the government compound in Zunhua City, Hebei Province, quickly became popular shortly after appearing on the Internet on January 6. According to the anonymous post, these workers, after toiling for a local construction project under a low-level subcontractor for almost a year starting in November 2009, weren’t paid 95 percent of their total wages. Their former boss, who paid just half of their salaries, said there was nothing he could do because the subcontractor above him paid only half of the overhead.

He Dongping, one migrant worker, later told Sichuan Daily, around 290 migrant workers working for the project were owed wages totaling around 3 million yuan ($455,000) and more than 200 workers were, like himself, from Sichuan Province. According to the report, the workers regarded petitioning the local government as a last resort to quickly retrieve their unpaid wages in time for their Spring Festival (February 3 this year) family reunion, which was one month away.

The workers’ three-month odyssey to get their money back ended after the local government ordered the developer pay all of their wages on January 14.

However, not every story of recovering overtime salaries has a happy ending. On January 29, 45-year-old Liu Dejun, a farmer from Hebei Province, died in a hospital 13 days after drinking highly poisonous pesticide in front of his former boss after he was refused his unpaid salary of 3,200 yuan ($485) for a third time.

Liu was hired by a private coal transportation business as a truck driver’s assistant in November 2010. On January 14, he quit his job after his boss threatened to give him a fine.

“I was so angry when he (Liu’s former boss) refused to pay me again. He said if I dared to kill myself, he would give my family double pay as compensation,” Liu told the police shortly after he was admitted to the hospital.

After Liu’s death, his former boss paid Liu’s family 260,000 yuan ($39,000) as compensation.

On December 17, 2010, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) issued a circular to trade union organizations at all levels, urging them to help migrant workers get their wages before the Spring Festival. Concrete measures include conducting field surveys to find out whether migrant workers have such complaints and address them quickly; publicizing the hotline numbers of local trade unions so that migrant workers can have access to their services, and offering emergency legal aid to workers who are owed wages or work injury compensation.

Migrant workers

According to the ACFTU, at the end of September 2010, trade unions had a total membership of 239 million in China, increasing by 13.61 million compared with one year earlier. Around 8.4 million new members are migrant workers. According to Central Government’s white paper Progress in China’s Human Rights in 2009, the total membership of China’s trade unions has been surging by more than 15 million every year since 2005.

Apart from the growing labor disputes and the quickly enlarging membership needing help, trade unions in China also face the tasks of better representing worker rights during conflicts and establishing a collective salary negotiation system in most industries.

The average monthly income for the new generation of migrant workers, amounts to only 1,748 yuan ($266), which is half the income of enterprise workers having an urban hukou (permanent residence certificate), according to a report released by the ACFTU on February 20.

The new generation of migrant workers refers to rural residents aged between 16 and 30 years who are doing non-agricultural jobs in cities. Currently, their number is estimated at 150 million in China.

The new generation of migrant workers encounters difficulties not only from economic pressure but also from insecure legal rights. Only 85 percent of them work with a legal contract, which is 4 percentage points lower than enterprise workers having an urban hukou and 68 percent out of the contracts signed do not indicate concrete amount of monthly income. And 17 percent do not hold the official hard copies of their labor contracts.

They change jobs more frequently, 2.9 times more than their parental generation, and 38 percent of them quit jobs because of “little chance for career development.”

The social security system caters little to their needs in forms of endowment insurance, medical insurance, unemployment insurance, employment injury insurance and maternity insurance, respectively 24 points, 15 points, 30 points, 9 points, 30 points lower than urban enterprises workers.

The report says young migrant workers are also paid 167 yuan ($25.3) less per month and receive worse social security compared to their parents.

According to another ACFTU survey, whose results were released in March 2010, 23.4 percent of workers said they hadn’t had a pay raise for five years; 75.2 percent said the income distribution was unfair and 61 percent believed the poor pay of ordinary workers is the most outstanding problem in China’s income distribution system.

Union’s role

The ACFTU’s work plan for 2011 says the coverage of collective salary negotiation systems among enterprises with trade unions should reach 60 percent by the end of the year and should come to 80 percent by the end of 2013.

The Beijing Federation of Trade Unions announced on December 28, 2010, its efforts to establish collective salary negotiation systems would focus on enterprises that give some employees a minimum wage, enterprises with frequent labor-management conflicts, labor-intensive enterprises, private enterprises and foreign companies.

Although China’s Labor Law, which stipulates collective contracts shall be signed by and between the trade union on behalf of the employees and the employer, has been in effect for 16 years, the trade unions in China have not acted strong enough to fight for member interests during the negotiations with employers.

Talking about the difficulties met by the trade unions in promoting collective salary negotiation system, Xu Xiaojun, a professor at the China Institute of Industrial Relations, told Beijing-based Insight China magazine trade union leaders were not used to participating in the decision of salary levels and didn’t have experience in such negotiations.

Xu said the leaders also lacked the courage to stand up against management to protect employee interests.

According to a report of Insight China, the fate of trade union leaders has been subject to company management, which can easily fire employees using the excuse dereliction of duty. The report said most trade union chairs were not elected by employees and were instead selected and recommended by company mangers.

Tang Xiaodong, a former employee of a Japan-China joint venture in Beijing, was the first trade union chief in the country who was fired during his tenure. In August 2003, Tang was elected to be his company’s trade union chairman at the self-organized employees’ assembly. The Federation of Trade Unions of Haidian District ratified the election results in the same month. On September 9, on behalf of the trade union, Tang required management to sign labor contracts with workers without a contract. Less than two months later, the company fired Tang, accusing him of revealing false information about the company to the media.

Over the next few years, trade union leaders with similar experiences as Tang were reported in other Chinese cities.

“I think trade union chairs should become independent from companies, which will give them more freedom to fight for employees’ interests,” Zhang Yujing, an official with the Beijing Federation of Trade Unions, told Insight China.

In 2010, the ACFTU injected a total of 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) to federations of trade unions in 10 provinces to finance pilot projects for company trade unions to hire salaried staff members.

By the end of September 2010, 5,121 people had been hired in areas with pilot projects.

Incomplete rules

The Salary Regulations, long regarded as a landmark code for China’s income distribution reform, failed to come out in 2010 as many people expected. China Newsweek magazine quoted people participating in the drafting of this code as saying a core issue they had debated was whether a collective salary negotiation system should be the basic way to decide salaries.

An anonymous drafter told China Newsweek if the draft stipulated the company should agree to conduct negotiations on salary levels whenever the employees have such a requirement, it would be infeasible.

Professor Lin Yanling at the China Institute of Industrial Relations told China Newsweek that a more realistic approach is to “establish an institution enabling labor to negotiate with the management collectively and let the labor market decide the final salary level.”

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