Official union must back new migrant worker legislators

04 March 2008
On Wednesday, 5 March 2008, three migrant workers will enter the Great Hall of the People in Beijing as deputies to this year's National People's Congress (NPC). China's official media has hailed the "election" of these deputies as a "symbolic and significant" development. 

However, for this event to be truly significant and not merely symbolic, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which is supposed to represent workers' interests, will have to give these new legislators its full support and strong political backing.

The three migrant worker deputies from Guangdong, Shanghai and Chongqing have been the focus of media attention ever since they arrived in Beijing. As a result, their proposals for promoting and defending the rights of their fellow migrant workers have been given much more publicity than would normally be the case for individual NPC deputies.

The deputies' proposals to introduce a paid holiday system for migrant workers that would help ease the chaos and strain on the national transport system every Spring Festival, and for more resources to be devoted to easing the plight of the children of migrant workers left behind in their hometowns, will undoubtedly raise public awareness of these important issues. However, once the novelty of migrant workers in the Great Hall of the People wears off, these issues will most likely fade away from public debate.

Simply allowing a handful of migrant workers into China's essentially rubber-stamp parliament will not in and of itself achieve anything. Migrant workers account for over ten percent of China's population, but only one tenth of one percent of NPC deputies. There is little chance that their voice, however well publicized, will have a significant impact on this year's parliamentary proceedings.

Representatives of business on the other hand have been playing a major role in the NPC and its advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), for over a decade, and have already had a notable influence on the legislative process, particularly on the 2007 Property Rights Law, which essentially legitimized the wholesale theft of state property during the great state-owned enterprise sell-off of the 1990s. The business community lobbied intensely against the Labour Contract Law prior to its promulgation last year, and has continued to campaign against it vociferously since its implementation on 1 January 2008, claiming it has been responsible for the closure of 10,000 businesses in Guangdong.

Two days before the opening of the NPC, a group of Hong Kong businesses took out a full-page advertisement in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, demanding that the implementing regulations for the Labour Contract Law be clarified as soon as possible in order to prevent what it said would be an economic disaster in the Pearl River Delta. The advertisement claimed that the law had made workers "uncooperative" and that labour activists were using it to stir up trouble and disrupt production. Migrant workers may have the attention of the media for a few days or even weeks during the NPC but business interests can summon it any time they want.

The gross imbalance of power between capital and labour needs to be addressed if China's much vaunted migrant worker deputies are to have any influence on the legislative process. The ACFTU has potentially a crucial role to play in addressing this imbalance. One of the self-professed key roles of the ACFTU over the last two decades has been in helping to draft labour legislation. Clearly, promoting involvement in the legislative process of China's most discriminated against workers is vital if the country's most pressing labour issues are to be tackled. The ACFTU, already well represented in the NPC and CPPCC, must give its full support and political backing to the work of migrant worker law-makers, not just at the national level but in provincial and municipal people's congresses across the country.

As the three NPC deputies have discovered, being a national legislator is a full-time job. However they have to retain their factory jobs in order to support themselves. If these deputies are to be at all effective in representing their vast constituency, they need all the financial and administrative resources the ACFTU can offer.

The ACFTU has consistently stated that it wants more migrant workers in the union; however migrant workers will only join the ACFTU if they believe it genuinely represents their interests. Actively supporting the work of migrant worker legislators would help improve the credibility of the ACFTU. However, the core job of a trade union is not law making but representing workers' interests on the shop floor. If migrant workers are to join the union, the ACFTU will have to demonstrate to them that it is serious about defending workers' rights at the most fundamental level: in negotiations with employers.

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