The way forward for trade unions and workers in China: A new research report from CLB

, by China Labour bulletin

The mass unemployment, lower wages and job insecurity created by the global economic crisis threatens the livelihoods of millions of Chinese workers, especially rural migrants who have little or no social security net to fall back on. Will the Chinese government and trade unions give workers the help they need, or will workers be forced to take matters into their own hands?

China Labour Bulletin publishes a new research report, Protecting Workers’ Rights or Serving the Party: The way forward for China’s trade unions, that provides key insights into these questions by examining the development of the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) over the last two decades, and, more specifically, how it has responded to the growing workers’ movement in China. The ACFTU has a mandate to protect the rights and interests of China’s workers. However, as the report shows, the organization has become increasingly passive and subservient to its political masters over the last two decades, to the point where it is now unable to satisfy even the most basic demands of migrant workers – decent pay for decent work.

The report asks what does the ACFTU consider its role to be: Is it a defender of workers’ rights or a servant of the Chinese Communist Party and government? And it shows that the ACFTU has generally not seen fighting for workers’ rights as an end in itself, but rather as a means to an end: the maintenance of social stability and upholding the political authority of the Party. Consequently, workers feel left out in the cold and are now increasingly bypassing the union altogether in their attempts to defend their rights. As evidenced by the wave of taxi strikes that swept the country late last year, workers now stage strikes and protests in a deliberate attempt to force local governments to intervene in their disputes with management.

The report stresses, however, that the all conditions for positive change within the union are present, and that there were signs in 2008 of union officials taking a more robust and pragmatic approach to protecting workers’ rights. The ACFTU supported a raft of new labour laws and - at the grassroots level - potentially groundbreaking moves to introduce collective bargaining. Many of these efforts have been put on hold in the wake of the global economic crisis, but the need for change remains very real.