The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is the world’s largest trade union. It is also utterly useless at protecting workers: working with business and government to screw over its members and suppress any independent unions that seek to replace it.
Today is International Workers Day, and most employees in China are on holiday this week. What better day to examine the state of worker protections in China?
The preamble to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China states that:
The people’s democratic dictatorship [is] led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants.
Founded in 1925, ACFTU was suppressed both by Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist government in 1927 and by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution. The union’s modern incarnation came into being in 1976, and since then it has been China’s premier, and only, labour union. Competing unions are forbidden, and ACFTU’s more than 258 million members are organised into over five million subsidiary unions.
‘Unions’ might be a more correct descriptor. The labour organisations that almost all Chinese workers belong to do not operate like unions in other countries. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the world’s largest trade union federation, does not recognise ACFTU as an independent trade union, nor does it regard it as an “authentic voice for Chinese workers”.
Following a series of scandals surrounding unfair dismissal (particularly by foreign-owned firms such as Walmart), and the negative publicity which these attracted, in January 2008 the Chinese government passed The Labour Contract Law of the People’s Republic of China, “one of the most far-reaching labour laws in the world” according to The Economist.
The 2008 reforms allowed ACFTU, which had previously been focused on state owned enterprises (SOEs), into the private sector. The union has said that it intends to unionise over 90 percent of workers in China, and by law any company with more than 25 employees must allow the formation of an ACFTU-approved union.
This expansion of the unionised workforce from the public into the private sector would be something to welcome, if only ACFTU acted anything like a union is supposed to. The Hong Kong-based charity Human Rights in China says of the organisation:
When workers organize work stoppages, strikes or demonstrations, the ACFTU is at best an observer and at worst a co-instrument in putting down labor unrest. In some cases, the ACFTU is known to have directly restrained or detained workers representatives.
As well as helping the state punish workers who engage in strikes (of which the right to do so was removed from the Constitution in 1982), ACFTU also collaborates with business owners, allowing firms to influence who their union chairperson will be and helping them head off unrest or worker dissatisfaction before it affects their bottom line. Indeed, the Trade Union Law, which governs ACFTU, states:
[When] a work stoppage or go slow occurs in an enterprise or institution, the trade union shall assist the enterprise or institution in its work so as to enable the normal production process to be resumed as quickly as possible.
Chinese workers are all too aware of the uselessness of their official trade union. While in the past workers largely sought to greater democratise ACFTU, increasingly they are looking outside the organisation. In most workplace disputes, particularly strikes, workers forgo ACFTU procedures and elect their own representatives for the duration. These informal and illegal strikes have proved successful: in 2010 workers in Foshan were able to attain a wage increase from management despite having no support from ACFTU – government approved union representatives even allegedly attacked striking workers who tried to talk to reporters.
Foxconn, the Taiwanese firm which has become the unwilling face of workers’ rights in China, approved numerous pay increases and other improvements after a spate of suicides at its plants in Guangdong. The firm pledged to allow its over 1.2 million factory workers to elect their union representatives by July 2013, though many have questioned how free these elections will really be, or how much power the winners will wield.
Other firms may follow Foxconn’s lead, and by the end of this year, workers may actually belong to organisations which, at least at the immediate factory level, bear a passing resemblance to unions. While ACFTU retains its monopoly on organising workers, and its role as an agent of the state however, any improvements will necessarily be slow, and minor.