China's state-owned enterprises back in the spotlight

In the last two months, there have at least three major strikes at state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in China by workers protesting impending takeovers and privatization plans.

Protests forced the postponement of privatization plans at two iron and steel plants in July and August. And most recently, several thousand coalminers at four mines in Hunan went on strike after management tried to force workers, many of whom had been employed at the mine for nearly 30 years, to sign lay-off compensation agreements that took no account of their time there.

The strikes and protests have highlighted once again the arbitrary and unilateral nature of SOE privatization in China. Workers are not consulted and usually presented with a “take it or leave it” ultimatum. And in response workers are increasingly taking the latter option, fighting back with well organized and effective protests.

Without a robust enterprise trade union to represent them, SOE workers are also forming their own labour rights groups to protect their interests. In April, several hundred workers in the northern city of Xi'an set up the Shaanxi Union Rights Defence Representative Congress, a body tasked with overseeing and monitoring SOE restructuring, and reporting corruption and abuses of power.

Although the group was eventually banned by the municipal government, its brief history highlighted the need for the official trade union to play a more pro-active role in the SOE restructuring process.

There are thousands of predominately large-scale enterprises still in state hands, and at some point, all but the most essential will wholly or partially privatized. See Shaoguan looks to the future but cannot escape the past. If the government is determined, as it says, to maintain social stability, it should ensure that in all subsequent restructurings, the rights and interests of workers, their families and the entire communities that form SOEs are fully taken into account.

While reporting on these stories, we have also been developing the website, adding more multi-media content and making the site more accessible to a wider readership.

We now have a regular podcast in which we analyze and discuss some of the important trends and developments in labour relations in China today, and shed light on the efforts of trade unions, workers' rights groups and individuals to support and empower workers in China.

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