Please call: Shanxi trade union officials “reach out” to workers

19 March 2012

If you ever doubted that most Chinese trade union officials are hopelessly out of touch with ordinary workers, you just have to read today’s Global Times.

The English-language tabloid announced that the Shanxi Federation of Trade Unions had ordered the province’s 100,000 or so enterprise union leaders to publicise their phone numbers and other contact details in a bid to make the union more accessible to workers.

Two questions immediately come to mind: why was this information not already available as a matter of course? And secondly, does the Shanxi federation really think that just by handing out phone numbers they will magically become a more open and representative trade union?

Needless to say, the announcement was greeted with general derision by workers, labour experts and netizens.

"A properly functioning agency does not rely on the contact details of one or two leaders being released. The solution is to guarantee the workers' rights to elect their own unions," Wang Zhengyu, vice director of the Centre for Public Policy Research at the China University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times.

It is at least encouraging that academics and media commentators, as well as ordinary workers, do now realise that for a trade union to do an effective job, officials have to be democratically elected by the workforce and subject to regular performance review.

There have of course been a few high-profile attempts by provincial trade union officials to organize democratic elections in enterprises, such as at Nanhai Honda after the ground-breaking strike there in 2010. However, there does not seem to have been a sustained effort by the provincial trade union federations to build a more democratic structure on the factory floor.

Union officials are still generally reactive, rather than proactive in dealing with workers’ issues. Indeed, the Shanxi federation’s new drive to connect with the workers came just a few days after a strike by workers at the Foxconn plant in the provincial capital Taiyuan broke out in protest at the relatively low pay increase awarded to production-line workers when compared with skilled and semi-skilled workers. Once again, in this dispute, the trade union was nowhere to be seen.

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