The amendment to the Constitution of China's Trade Unions, which was adopted Friday by the just-concluded 14th National Congress of Trade Unions, stipulates for the first time the protection of members' rights as the most important task of trade unions.
The change in wording is similar to the country's revised law on trade unions, which also set for the first time the task of protecting the legitimate rights and interests of union members as the basic role of trade unions.
The original version of the constitution and the law refer to the task, however, only as a non-binding social function.
Guan Huai, a professor with China's prestigious People's University of China, described the change as a "significant breakthrough, which represents the will of the state law."
In an exclusive interview with Xinhua, Guan, also legal advisor of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, said the change to the constitution will enable trade unions to work for their members and unite workers.
The professor explained that the fundamental role of trade unions is safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of employees, and the purpose of employees joining trade unions is seeking protection of their rights and interests by unions.
Ye Guoliang, one of the 1,600 delegates to the five-day congress, said the revised constitution "created a better policy environment for trade unions as their role has been redefined in a clear way."
Zhao Jianjie, professor with Labor Relations College of China, called the change a historic return, and a natural development amid increasingly complicated labor rations in the changing situation.
China's transition from a planned economy in the 1970s to a market economy resulted in fundamental changes to the country's industrial relations, an end to the lifelong employment system, and fast development of the private sector.
The non-state sector, which employs millions of workers in overseas-funded firms and private companies, contributed to the country's prosperity in the past two decades while industrial relations became more complicated.
In his report to the congress, Wang Zhaoguo, chairman of the federation, said relations between the employees and employers were strained in some particular areas.
Professor Zhao said frequent incidents involving violation of workers' rights in some areas had negative impacts on social stability and economic development.
According to the results of a survey, payment of 36.6 billion yuan (US$4.4 billion) in wages for urban workers was delayed by employers across China in 2000, and the figure may exceed 40 billion yuan to date.
For migrant workers, mostly poor farmers, the situation is even worse.
Experts put the delayed payment of wages for them at 100 billion yuan annually, and it is not unusual for them to get no pay for overtime.
Workshop safety remains a problem for many workers, mostly those working for private or some overseas-funded plants.
In Leqing city of Zhejiang Province, east China, trade union officials said about 5,000 migrant workers lost some of their fingers last year while working at poor quality punches without safety devices.
Those injured were kicked out of the plants by their bosses with little financial compensation, which is against the law, the officials said.
Professor Guan said the Chinese government has come to realize the role of trade unions in improving industrial relations and facilitating economic development in a market economy.
While addressing the opening session of the congress, Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong urged trade unions to highlight their role in safeguarding the rights and interest of workers.
Professor Zhao said the major channel for trade unions to safeguard workers' rights is to participate in formulation of laws, regulations and contracts, which requires improved ability of trade union leaders.
Highlighting the role of protecting union members' rights and interests does not mean support for confrontation, the professor said.
The amendment to the union constitution was designed to make it possible for trade unions to play a greater role in improving industrial relations through protecting union members' rights, thus facilitating social stability and economic development, said the professor.
The All-China Federation of Trade Unions now represents 134 million members, a sharp increase from 90 million in 1998, in 1.71 million trade unions at the grass-roots level.
(Xinhua News Agency September 27, 2003)