Behind ACFTU's Million-Branch Campaign in Private and Foreign-funded Enterprises

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) announced its plan to 'increase the number of trade union branches in newly established enterprises to one million by the end of this year, with 36 million members'. In the million-branch campaign, the main targets are the non-state/collective enterprises made up largely of private enterprises, township enterprises and foreign-invested enterprises where workers stay out of the ACFTU (China Daily, 12/8/2002).

In 2001, more than 510,000 trade union branches were set up in these enterprises. The campaign means that the ACFTU is set to keep up the momentum from last year in "setting up union branches wherever there are workers", a principle emphasized by the federation's president, Wei Jianxing, in his preface to the publication 'Training Courses for Trade Union Officials'. The drive is seen as ACFTU's "important and urgent mission" in this era of economic change which poses two major challenges to the federation, namely shrinking membership in state and collective enterprises, and the largely unorganised workforce in the non-state/collective sector (Workers' Daily Online, 13/8/2002).

ACFTU statistics show that by the end of 1999, only one third of the workers in foreign-invested enterprises were union members. In the private sector and township enterprises, only one-sixth and one-seventh of the workforce respectively were unionised.

Wang Ying, a division official in charge of setting up branches, told China Daily that "the weak role of trade unions has partly contributed to the increase in court cases on workers' rights in recent years". He explained that migrant workers in these enterprises are "vulnerable to abuse and personal injury in the workplace" as in most cases, they are "without legal contracts or trade union protection".

Wang got it right -- workers' rights violations are rampant in these enterprises. However, they are not confined to the main sectors that ACFTU is targetting.

According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security (MOLSS), there were increases in labour disputes in all types of enterprises in 2000. Of the 327,152 that officially occurred, 24.2% were in state enterprises, 20% in collective enterprises, 15.5% in foreign-invested enterprises and 14% in private companies. The situation is worse if collective actions outside the labour disputes arbitration mechanisms are taken into account. MOLSS statistics report 8,247 collective actions (usually go-slows, strikes, marches and road blocking) in 2000, involving 259,445 workers. These cases are mostly over wage arrears, illegal working conditions and non-payment of labour insurance (see Industrial Unrest in China - A Labour Movement in the Making?).

While the principle that "unions are essential to protecting the interests and rights of workers" is true in general, Wang's statement misrepresents the role of ACFTU in tackling workers' rights violations - it is not its absence, but its ineffectiveness in all types of enterprises, that explains the blatant violations.

CLB's extensive reports on labour disputes and actions in China point to the pattern that ACFTU branches are simply unable to intervene on behalf of the workers. Our recent interview in August 2002 with Mr. Xian, chairman of Nanhai City Federation of Trade Unions, on illegal overtime work at a local private electrical appliance factory tells the reality behind the union drive.

To date, more than 4,000 branches have been set up in non-state/collective enterprises in Nanhai, Guangdong Province, Mr. Xian said. There is resistance from some Taiwanese enterprises but he admitted that nothing could be done. However, he pointed out that the main concern was that in the current system, workers' rights were not effectively protected even in enterprises with trade unions. First of all, 80% of the union chairpersons come from top management. The rest are either foremen or department heads. Secondly, like other ACFTU officials, Mr. Xian referred to the political constraint of the federation - it is under the leadership of the Communist Party and has to follow the party line.

In his interview with China Daily, Wang Ying made it clear that "increasing membership in trade unions is crucial to mobilising workers [for] the country's reform and development". Behind this statement is the underlying role of ACFTU in controlling the workers to ensure the party line of 'stability above all' instead of protecting workers' rights which can potentially disrupt labour relations and 'investor-friendly' environment.

As a matter of fact, the increasing collective actions point to the workers' choice to take things to their own hands, dismissing ACFTU as the guardian of their rights and livelihood. The ultimate question is whether workers will be allowed to form their own organisations - a fundamental right denied by the Chinese government.

ACFTU president, Wei Jianxing, give a definite 'NO' to this question:

"ACFTU at all levels... must resolutely uphold the unity of the working people and trade union organisations, and guard against the plot of hostile forces at home and abroad to 'westernise' and 'split up' the working people and trade union organisations." (Preface to 'Training Courses for Trade Union Officials')

China Labour Bulletin


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