Perspectives on Work: Labor Unrest and Denial of the Right to Organize in China

Robin Munro, CLB Research Director

First published in Perspectives On Work

Fall 2004 Edition

At the International Labour Organization's (ILO) annual conference in Geneva on June 4 this year - the 15th anniversary of the bloody suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement - the independent labor activist Han Dongfang, now based in Hong Kong since his expulsion from Mainland China in 1993, was allowed to make a four-minute commemorative speech at the ILO Workers' Group. Han, who heads the labor rights group China Labour Bulletin, focused on the Chinese government's continuing denial and suppression of basic workers' rights, notably the right to organize and to engage in independent trade union activities outside the narrow confines of the government-run All-China Federation of Trades Unions (ACFTU). He also highlighted the cases of several leading worker activists in China who are currently serving harsh terms of imprisonment merely for having dared to speak out on behalf of their fellow workers and for helping to organize peaceful protest actions in defense of workers' basic rights and livelihood.

At the end of Han's speech, the official "workers' delegate" from China (a government-appointed functionary from the ACFTU) used his right of reply to launch a fiercely personal attack on Han, branding him as "one of those carrying out criminal activities in the name of doing trade union work" and accusing him of "sabotaging the international workers' solidarity" that the ILO is designed to uphold. Polite applause followed each of the two presentations, and then the issue of denial of fundamental workers' rights in China was put safely back into the ILO's cupboard for yet another year.

China is one of the small minority of ILO member states that has still not ratified either of the two core ILO conventions (Nos. 87 and 98) on freedom of association, the right to organize and the right to engage in collective bargaining. This means that despite the government's wholesale and egregious suppression of the independent labor movement in China - a crackdown that has continued unabated since the brief nationwide flowering in May 1989 of "workers' autonomous federations" of the kind that Han helped organize in Beijing - it cannot be subjected to the kind of intense grilling and criticism by the ILO's supervisory bodies that a country like Burma/Myanmar, which ratified the ILO's Forced Labor Convention (No. 29) back in 1955, is nowadays subjected to at every major ILO conference. Unfortunately, the same logic dictates that China is unlikely to ratify Conventions 87 or 98 at any time in the near future. The Chinese government and its official trade union want to enjoy the benefits of membership in the world labor club, but without having to shoulder the major duties and responsibilities of that role.

This is a stance that also suits admirably the needs of the international business and investment community, which sees in China today a kind of economic paradise where workers can be hired cheaply and then fired at will, and where occupational health and safety legislation is routinely ignored by local governments more interested in maintaining China's "competitive economic advantage" than in spreading the benefits of double-digit annual economic growth down into the workforce.

Not Sustainable

There are increasing signs, however, that China's highly inequitable model of socio-economic development cannot be sustained indefinitely. The numbers of street-level protests by workers left destitute by unemployment in cities around the country - and especially in the dying industrial rust-belt zones of the northeast - has been rising exponentially over the past few years. The government has voiced increasing alarm over the socially and politically destabilizing effect of this high level of labor unrest, though it still shows no sign of willingness to grant workers any significant degree of freedom to organize collectively in defense of their basic rights. The result is rising levels of anger and frustration across a wide swathe of the Chinese labor force, which has seen its formerly high degree of job security and enterprise-provided social security and welfare benefits either savagely cut, or axed entirely, in the course of more than a decade of "socialist market economy" reforms.

The official unemployment rate in China is around 4 percent, but independent experts recently cited by the ILO place the actual figure at closer to 23 percent. Since 1998, when China's program of privatization of the state-owned enterprise (SOE) sector moved into high gear, as many as 25 million workers have been laid off or made redundant, and only about two-thirds of them have found alternative employment-usually in much lower paid and less secure jobs than before, typically in either the services industries or in the seasonal and temporary manufacturing sector. Meanwhile, China's labor force is expected to increase by more than 70 million over the coming decade-a figure that will almost inevitably exceed the country's capacity for job creation.

As the government's program of SOE reform enters its third and final stage, up to 190,000 remaining small and medium-sized SOEs are slated for imminent closure or privatization (more often than not meaning the transfer of assets at "fire sale" prices to enterprise managers and their local government cronies). By the end of this process, China's once relatively privileged urban class will see its status reduced to what the country's labor-relations academics have increasingly been referring to as a "socially disadvantaged minority." Moreover, only in the past few years has the government begun to make any serious effort to establish a national system of social security, unemployment welfare benefits and medical insurance, and in most parts of the country only a minority of workers and their families are as yet covered by the system.

Couple all this with the continued massive influx of rural migrant workers into China's cities - at present there are anywhere from 100 to 150 million such people seeking (and mostly finding) work in the cities, and as part of its macro-plan for structural economic reform the government envisages a much larger rural-urban migration taking place over the coming decade or so - and it is clear that a social and political time bomb is now ticking away across large parts of China's urban landscape. Perhaps the monopolistic restriction of trade union rights to a single, government-run union such as the ACFTU made some sense during China's avowedly more "socialist" era from 1949 to roughly the late 1970s, when no private capital or private enterprise was allowed anywhere in the country and labor relations were effectively a matter between the government and the workforce, but it certainly makes no socio-political sense at all in the present era, when China has become arguably one of the most nakedly capitalistic economies in the world.


Indeed, despite the impressive gloss of modernity that now adorns many major Chinese cities-the glittering skyscrapers and glass palaces of commerce that have sprung up seemingly everywhere that the average foreign visitor passes through-under the surface, in terms of the prevailing labor conditions and labor relations, China in many ways more closely resembles 19th century Europe during the heyday of unfettered capitalist development. A relatively impoverished and insecure urban workforce has to contend on a daily basis with an outright government ban on any form of independent labor organization or activity, and workers who defy this prohibition on the exercise of internationally recognized labor rights are liable to arrest and imprisonment-sometimes even on the absurd legal grounds of "conspiracy to subvert the government."

In a key sense, the task facing people like Han Dongfang who are trying to promote a genuine free labor movement in China is even more daunting than the one that confronted labor organizers in the early period of European capitalism: the government claims that the right to organize and belong to a union has already been successfully fought for and won - by the Communist Party - and that Chinese workers are now free to join any union they like, provided it is the ACFTU. The Catch-22 dilemma posed by the government to Chinese workers today is therefore: "Fighting for the right to organize is illegal, because you already have it."

Here are some recent examples of worker activists who have fallen victim to this disingenuous and dishonest official logic:

-- Yao Fuxin, 53 years old, and Xiao Yunliang, 58, were organizers of massive street protests involving up to 30,000 laid-off and retired workers from a series of factories in Liaoyang City (in the northeastern province of Liaoning) over several weeks in the spring of 2002. Arrested in March that year, the two men were held incommunicado in police custody until January 2003, when they were tried on charges of "conspiracy to subvert the government." Four months later, Yao Fuxin was sentenced to seven years in prison and Xiao Yunliang to four years. Both men have been suffering from serious health ailments since their initial detention, and Xiao is now critically ill-and almost blind-but prison authorities continue to deny him medical care.

-- Zhang Shanguang is a 46-year-old former teacher from Xupu County, Hunan Province, who organized the Hunan Autonomous Workers' Federation during the 1989 protests and was subsequently sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. While in prison, he contracted tuberculosis. Upon his release in 1996, Zhang was unable to find work and eventually opened his own business. In spring 1998, he set up and tried to officially register a group called the Association to Protect the Rights and Interests of Laid-Off Workers, and within a few months the group attracted more than 300 members.

Arrested in August 1998, Zhang was eventually convicted on the twin counts of "incitement to subvert the government" and "providing intelligence to a hostile overseas organization"-a charge that referred to an interview on local labor unrest that he had given to Radio Free Asia. Although he suffers from lingering tuberculosis and has lost an alarming amount of weight, Zhang has been denied medical attention by the Hunan No.1 Provincial Prison authorities and is reportedly forced to perform hard manual labor for up to 16 hours a day.

-- Wang Hanwu and eight other workers from the Tieshu Textiles Factory in Suizhou City, Hubei Province, were detained by police following a mass public demonstration by over 1,000 workers on February 8, 2004. The Tieshu workers' were protesting against the recent bankruptcy of the factory, which they alleged had resulted from extensive corruption on the part of the factory's managers. According to the now unemployed workers, the factory still owes them more than 200 million Yuan (around $20 million) in missing wages, unpaid medical benefits, pension payments, and factory shares that workers were forced to buy some years ago and which are now worth only a quarter of their original value.

The Suizhou police's treatment of these detainees illustrates the arbitrary nature of criminal justice in China today. Several of them were initially charged under the criminal law for "disrupting social order," but after one of the families hired a leading criminal defense lawyer, the police shifted track and sentenced them "administratively" to several-year terms of "re-education through labor"-a custodial punishment imposed solely on police authority-thereby denying the detainees their day in court. When the lawyer then announced that he intended to sue the police in an administrative lawsuit challenging the legality of one of these "administrative" sentences, the authorities further backed down and freed several of the detainees outright-a clear sign that police had insufficient evidence to support the detentions from the outset. Meanwhile, "disrupting social order" cases were successfully brought against three other laid-off workers, resulting in sentences of up to one year in prison.

-- Most recently, ten workers from the Taiwan-invested Stella Shoe Factory in Dongguan City, Guangdong Province, were arrested in May 2004 following a late-night protest against an arbitrary decision by management to reallocate the workers' overtime hours from the weekend to weekdays, resulting in substantially lower overtime rates being paid to them.

In this case, the workers were so enraged by management's treatment, and by the poor working conditions at the factory, that they reportedly smashed factory equipment, damaged cars, and came to blows with several managers. While the protesting workers were wrong to have resorted to violence, the case is a good example of the way the government's refusal to countenance any form of independent union organizing or genuine worker representation (resulting in an almost total absence of alternative, peaceful channels for the early resolution of disputes at the critical shop-floor level) often leaves workers with no option but to take their protest to the streets or even, occasionally, to engage in ill-advised physical confrontations with factory managers. In October and November 2004, the ten Stella workers were sentenced to prison terms of up to three and a half years.

Toothless Laws

Since 1994, the Chinese government has passed much labor legislation-laws that, on the whole, look good on paper. Among these are the Labor Law (1994), the Trade Union Law (2001), the Law on Work Safety (2002), and the Law on Industrial Injuries Insurance (2003). However, there has been a failure of government will in the area of monitoring and enforcing these laws. Labor safety inspectors, in particular, have been seemingly powerless to halt an appalling and ever-worsening epidemic of industrial injury and fatality cases across the country. In recent years, to cite only the most conspicuous example, officially announced accident fatalities in the country's coal mining industry have been running in the range of 6,000 to 9,000 deaths per year.

Along with the above-mentioned legislative initiatives has come, unsurprisingly, a flood of workplace disputes. There were as many as 180,000 cases nationwide in 2002, the majority of which have ended up in court rather than being dealt with through the more informal Labor Dispute Arbitration Committees set up by all local governments in recent years; and the number of such disputes has been doubling annually since 1994. As one Western academic has commented, "Workers increasingly go to court and arbitration because they have no effective advocates at lower levels. The ban on independent trade unions, and the weakness and dependence of the official trade union, has made lower-level resolution of labor disputes in China extremely difficult and problematic."[2]

In most countries with properly functioning systems of labor law protection, the laws and the rights they embody have usually been the product of protracted struggles by organized labor. Moreover, once the laws are in place it is the existence of a well-organized labor movement that ensures adherence to the spirit of the legislation and that gives the laws their "teeth." In China, by contrast, all labor legislation has been a top-downward creation by the government, enacted in the social vacuum arising from the outright banning of any form of independent labor activity and organization. The animating spirit of China's labor legislation is thus almost completely absent (apart from in the increasingly embattled enclave of Hong Kong, where groups like the Confederation of Trades Unions struggle to keep the flame of free trade unionism burning).

For the Sake of Stability

Until the Gordian Knot of China's non-ratification of ILO Conventions No. 87 and No. 98 can somehow be untied, the prospects for a peaceful and constructive resolution of the rising tide of labor unrest across the country will continue to be bleak. Similarly, the great majority of ordinary Chinese workers will remain at the mercy of unscrupulous and unrestrained private entrepreneurs and factory managers, and the "social stability and unity" that the Chinese government claims to place above all other priorities-and which it regularly cites to justify its arrest and imprisonment of peaceful labor activists of all kinds-will continue to remain a distant and unrealizable political objective. For the sake of China's workers and their nation's future stability, the international labor movement should redouble its efforts to pressure the Chinese government into finally endorsing the ILO's core standards on freedom of association and the right to organize. Nothing less will suffice to solve China's ever-sharpening labor "contradictions," and nothing less is good enough for Chinese workers.


1. The quotes in this paragraph come from my own notes of the meeting.

2. Gallagher, Mary E. " 'Use the Law as Your Weapon!' - Institutional Change and Legal Mobilization in China," in Diamant, Neil et al., editors, Law and Social Change in China (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, forthcoming).

For other articles on labour issues in China in the same issue of Perspectives on Work, see:

26 November 2004

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