Three new rules were mapped out at the end of October by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), a mass organization formed by Chinese workers, to protect the rights and interests of employees in private or joint-venture (JV) enterprises.
The first rule strengthens support for workers who wish to establish trade unions at their workplaces. In collaboration with local governments, the ACFTU will establish dossiers on those companies that have not set up trade unions and will assign staffers to help the employees to do so. Companies that refuse to allow unionization will be sued.
Second, all migrant workers will be encouraged to join trade unions. Under China's labor laws, all employees may establish or join trade unions regardless of where they are from or how long they have been employed. The ACFTU says that where there are workers, there should be trade unions.
The last rule is part of the effort to end the problem of withholding or nonpayment of wages. The ACFTU suggests developing payment consultation and credit systems in enterprises. These would give workers equal bargaining rights with management to negotiate payment affairs and would enable workers and management to reach consensus on the issue before labor contracts are signed.
Within a month after going into effect, the new rules began to reap results.
Under pressure from the ACFTU, Wal-Mart Stores -- the world's biggest retailer and an employer that is infamous for blocking the establishment of unions at its outlets worldwide -- announced on November 23 that it would permit union branches in its Chinese stores.
Wal-Mart has 20,000 employees in more than 40 outlets scattered through 18 Chinese cities. None of the outlets has established a trade union since the company entered China in 1996.
Other foreign-owned operations, like the Kodak, Samsung, Dell, McDonalds and KFC, all have been found to have no trade unions in their Chinese branches.
Ideally, the market economy should allow everyone to win. Entrepreneurs can make profits. Workers can get paid acceptable wages on time. Consumers can have good-quality, reasonably priced products and services. Governments can gain tax revenues.
But in China, the interests of migrant workers and employees of private enterprises are often neglected. Many large-scale private enterprises, including some of the world's leading corporations, find excuses to refuse to set up trade unions.
Presently, only 1.1 million trade unions are operating in private enterprises in China, just 30.7 percent of the total, and only 36 million people have joined. Moreover, the country has around 100 million migrant workers, virtually none of whom belong to a union.
Some local governments maintain silence over illegal suppression of union organization by companies because they want to attract more investment to promote the local economy. Workers become the victims, instead of the beneficiaries, of economic growth.
But when the interests of workers are neglected too long, the problem can no longer be swept under the rug. In 2003, 41.7 billion yuan (US$5.0 billion) in late wages was owed to 8.5 million workers. Some were driven to extremes in an attempt to obtain their money, making the extent of the discontent known to companies and governments alike.
In desperation and with no strong, organized support, the workers felt they had to take risks to exercise their legal rights.
The ACFTU's new rules are bound to have far-reaching implications for the functioning of trade unions. Chinese workers, especially the 100 million migrant workers, will find effective channels to maintain their rights.
(China.org.cn by Unisumoon, December 2, 2004)