Local union washes its hands of the Nanjing Airport Covid-19 outbreak

30 August 2021

At least 15 senior officials in the eastern province of Jiangsu have been penalised following a cross-contamination event involving the cleaning crew at Nanjing Lukou International Airport, which led to the latest wave of Covid-19 infections spreading across China.

Once the source of the outbreak was confirmed on 23 July, the Jiangsu Provincial Party Committee decided to suspend the Party Secretary and Chairman of the Eastern Airports Group, which runs the Nanjing airport. However, little appears to have been done to address the failures that led to the outbreak in the first place, or, in particular, the role that the local trade union should have played in ensuring the safety of the cleaning crew.

Airport management had made little effort to separate staff responsible for cleaning domestic versus international flights. Moreover, cleaning staff were not provided with alternative accommodation, and they returned to their homes after their shifts. The company’s actions not only put staff at risk, but also facilitated a wave of infections, initially to their families and then to the wider community.

Nine people tested positive for the virus on 20 July, and within a week, numerous cases were reported in five other provinces. Ultimately, it spread to 50 cities in 17 provinces and regions of China, resulting in new travel restrictions and widespread testing and lockdown measures, before being brought under control by the end of this month.

Since 2014, the airport has outsourced cabin cleaning services to several private companies in a bid to cut costs. Workers are paid between 5,000 and 6,000 yuan per month, and each employee has to do the amount of work previously undertaken by two workers.

According to China’s Work Safety Law, trade unions are supposed to play a supervisory role when it comes to high-risk work, such as aircraft cleaning during a pandemic. Unions can also propose solutions when they encounter conditions that could put employees at risk, and can organise the evacuation of employees.

Local unions often claim that if workers are not members of trade unions, as was likely the case with most of the outsourced workers at the airport, worker safety is outside their scope of responsibility.

However, some provincial union officials did - on the surface at least - accept that the union had a key role to play. On 11 February 2020, for example, two top trade union officials paid a visit to the airport and vowed to “play to the unique advantages of trade unions” and “ensure the health and safety of employees.” One day earlier, the Jiangsu Provincial Federation of Trade Unions issued a document reminding companies to promote safe practices through education, inspect equipment and facilities, and guarantee worker protection and epidemic prevention supplies. It also emphasised the role of trade unions in playing an active role in inspection.

Trade unions all over Jiangsu were fully aware of this reminder and should have acted accordingly to protect workers at risk. On 7 June, just six weeks before this latest cluster was discovered, Eastern Airports trade union head Zhao Chenhua inspected the airport in person but found nothing that went against Covid-19 prevention protocols. Neither Zhao nor any other union official was held accountable for the ensuing outbreak.

When China Labour Bulletin called the Jiangning District Trade Union in Nanjing to ask whether the discipline inspection commission had held anyone within the union accountable, a representative said that they had not. When pressed about this case, he replied, “This (work safety issue) is not in the scope of things we solve. We have nothing to be held accountable for. There is no problem here,” he said, before passing the buck to the provincial trade union. 

CLB asked the same question of the trade union responsible for provincially-owned enterprises and institutions. The official who answered the phone simply laughed. He claimed that the cross-contamination was “a problem of company management,” rather than a workplace safety problem. The official even stated that workplace safety is an administrative, rather than a trade union, issue and as such management should be held responsible but not the union.

Provincial trade union officials also confirmed they had no plans to hold the lower-level unions accountable for the workers’ contamination. “Trade unions have no power to hold (lower levels of) trade unions accountable. This right is reserved only for the provincial commission for discipline inspection.”

Article 55 of the Trade Union Law states:

Where a trade union functionary, in violation of the provisions of this Law, infringes upon the rights and interests of the workers and staff members or of the trade union, the trade union at the corresponding level or the trade union at a higher level shall order the functionary to rectify, or impose a sanction on him; if the circumstances are serious, the functionary shall be removed from office in accordance with the Constitution of Trade Unions of the People's Republic of China; if losses are caused, the liability for compensation shall be borne; if a crime is constituted, criminal responsibility shall be investigated according to law. 

The union may not understand its obligations when it comes to work safety, but they know how to put on a show. On 18 June, the Eastern Airports Group won a singing contest organized by the aforementioned union responsible for provincially-owned enterprises and institutions unions, held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, with the song “Always Follow the Party.”

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