China’s trade union in dreamland

The Chinese Dream has been analysed and interpreted in many different ways since President Xi Jinping first floated the idea at this year’s National People’s Congress. But perhaps the biggest difference is between how China’s workers and the official trade union see that dream.

On 1 April, appropriately enough, The All-China Federation of Trade Unions called on unions across the country to spread the idea of the “Chinese Dream - the Beauty of Work,” a concept that encouraged workers to take pride in their work and work harder for a Chinese renaissance.

According to media reports, in less than a month, trade unions had organized over 1,500 propaganda groups with thousands of grassroots officials working on the factory floor. The reports claimed that more than four million workers had listened to the Chinese Dream propaganda and gradually digested the concept and were then motivated to be the practitioner of the Chinese path and a driving force for Chinese power.

Provinces and cities like Shaanxi, Qinghai and Shanghai issued detailed directives on how to carry out the propaganda work. These directives contained no mention of workers’ rights and interests but instead were full of words like “harmonious society,” “hardworking” and “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Lang Guoqing, the deputy chairman of the Qinghai provincial union, for example, mentioned “socialism with Chinese characteristics” 17 times in a 2,300 character commentary.

When it comes to the implementation of the Chinese Dream, Lang stressed that unions should guide workers with socialism’s core values, instruct workers to voluntarily undertake their legal and social duties, and keep collective labour disputes at bay.

In other words, the union must obey and serve the Party and the state in realizing the Chinese Dream.

Away from dreamland, the latest figures from the National Bureau of Statistics show that less than half of China’s 263 million migrant workers have signed labour contracts with their employees – making them far more vulnerable to exploitation and rights violations. Only 14.3 percent of migrant workers have a pension, 24 percent of them have work-injury insurance, 16.9 percent have medical insurance, 8.4 percent have unemployment insurance, and only 6.1 percent have maternity insurance.

Due to ineffective trade union representation, many migrant workers struggle to protect their rights and can only improve their pay and working conditions through collective action. They have a totally different vision of the Chinese dream from that of the official trade union.

When asked about his Chinese dream, a young worker who was fired from an American-owned factory in Guangzhou this February because he refused to do overtime said, “Ordinary workers only know how to work hard and make a living. We don’t have many dreams. I simply hope I can have a more relaxing job in the future.”

An elderly migrant worker who was severely injured in a coal mine accident but received very little compensation said he hopes the state can take better care of injured workers such as him.

A jewellery worker who later became an advocate for the rights of workers with pneumoconiosis said he hopes that workers’ rights to a safe working environment can be enforced and not just left as words printed on paper.

A Shenzhen-based labour NGO worker said the Chinese dream should mean decent working conditions and a dignified life. So that the children of migrant workers can enjoy equal rights to education with urban residents, access basic medical care when they are ill, and get legal redress when their labour rights are violated.

The gap between what the official unions think and what workers want is very worrying. But since Chinese workers cannot form independent unions, perhaps the best solution to this yawning gap is to reform the official union from the bottom up and encourage real workers’ representation in factory unions. Encouragingly, this is already happening in some factories in Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

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