CLB Director Han Dongfang contributed this commentary to the Financial Times. Copyright remains with the orginigal publisher.
There is a tendency in the west to see China’s workers as mere victims of repression, with no rights, no trade unions and no hope. And as such, the thinking goes, it is the responsibility of the leading brands that purchase everything “Made in China” to improve the lives of workers on their behalf.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Ever since hundreds of workers at a Honda plant in southern China staged a groundbreaking strike in the summer of 2010, no one can suggest the workforce is comprised purely of victims. The Honda strike, and the wave of others that followed it, showed that the country’s workers are organised and determined to push for better pay, benefits and working conditions.
China’s workers are now very well aware of their rights and increasingly resolute in protecting them. In the past, if staff were dismissed in retaliation for organising a strike, they might simply shrug their shoulders and find another job. But now we see those who have been sacked taking bosses to court and demanding reinstatement so that they can continue their struggle for better pay and conditions.
We have seen cases where workers are both willing and able to formulate a plan, democratically elect their own representatives and engage in dialogue with their employers to resolve their grievances. They are developing a greater sense of class-consciousness, rooted in a shared identity and an understanding that only through collective action and solidarity can their goals be met.
Encouragingly, the government now seems to realise that it is in its own interests, and in those of the country as a whole, to allow China’s workers to move forwards in this way. The problem, however, is that the official trade union leaders and the bosses – who are often the same people – are lagging behind.
Company owners and managers have had things their own way for so long that it is perhaps understandable that they are reluctant to change. Many bosses simply refuse to engage in any sort of meaningful dialogue with workers, and will only make minor concessions after being forced into negotiations by strike action.
Even when management has agreed to sit at the bargaining table and talk respectfully with workers as equals, the results have mostly been just one-off settlements. This is better than nothing but it is hardly a long-term solution.
The next step clearly has to be the creation of a stable and long-term mechanism for workplace-based collective bargaining that can alleviate tensions and benefit employees and management alike. But workers need a trade union they can rely on – one that is owned by them and dedicated to defending their rights and interests.
At present, the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is floundering, trying to catch up with these new developments and decide in which direction to go. There are some signs, however, that the federation – or at least parts of it – is taking a more pro-worker stance. But it will have to welcome ordinary workers, and give them the training and the tools they need to be effective trade union officials. It also requires a major structural reform: it is currently an organisational mirror of the government. What it needs to become instead is a strong industrial union capable of conducting collective bargaining on behalf of its members.
This may seem like wishful thinking but, looking at the strength and determination of the country’s workers, I am confident they will provide the spark and the impetus the ACFTU needs to change. I have no doubt that it is the workers’ movement in China today that will lead to the development of strong unions in China tomorrow.
This is of huge importance to the country’s economic and political development. Moreover, the impact will not be limited to China. It will have profound influence on the global economy and on the international labour movement as well. In the past few decades, millions of jobs have moved to China from North America and Europe. The country is now the global centre for manufacturing. It is only natural that it should become the centre of the global trade union movement as well.
The writer is a Chinese labour activist and founder of China Labour Bulletin