Will China’s trade union finally live up to its obligations under the Work Safety Law?

09 August 2021

China’s newly-amended Work Safety Law (安全生产法) goes into effect on 1 September. This third revision of the law shows the government's continuing efforts to improve work safety but also reveals how much still needs to be done before “safety first” becomes a reality rather than just a slogan.

The revised law increases fines and administrative sanctions for delinquent companies and even allows for public interest lawsuits to be brought by the People’s Procuratorate. Importantly, the law now brings the millions of workers employed by online platforms - such as food delivery workers - and labour agency workers under its remit.

The law clarifies the rights and obligations of employers, workers and China’s official trade union. Employers are required to ensure that all workers are aware of and abide by safety regulations and utilize protective clothing and equipment. All safety measures, including work-related injury insurance, should be stipulated in formal labour contracts.

Workers have the right to report work safety problems and refuse any orders from management that contravene the law or risk their health and safety. If workers discover a clear and present danger in the workplace, they have the right to halt production and evacuate according to emergency procedures.

The enterprise trade union has additional rights and responsibilities, including the right to be consulted on the implementation of any new safety measures. The union can demand rectification of hazards that threaten the rights and interests of workers, and it has the right to participate in accident investigations, submit opinions to the local authorities on its findings, and demand that relevant personnel be held accountable.

Many of these provisions have been in place since the law first went into effect in 2002, but the latest version makes the responsibility of trade unions for work safety inescapably clear. As such, the question needs to be asked: how will the union respond? Will trade union officials grasp the opportunity to play a more proactive role in work safety, or will they continue to hide in the shadows?

The track record of local trade union officials when it comes to work safety is not encouraging. Time and again, when China Labour Bulletin staff have contacted local trade union officials in the aftermath of a work-related accident in their jurisdiction, they are evasive and seek to duck any questions related to their lack of action. Often, they claim they do not have the administrative authority to intervene in work safety matters and that only the local government could do so.

Following the death of 23 workers from carbon monoxide poisoning at the Diaoshuidong coal mine in Chongqing on 4 December 2020, CLB Executive Director Han Dongfang called the unions at every administrative level in Chongqing, from the municipal and district unions down to the subdistrict and to Ji'an Township. Even a simple question such as whether there was an enterprise union at the coal mine was met with a panicked response. Officials at the Yongchuan District Federation of Trade Unions either referred enquiries to the higher municipal union or the district Party’s propaganda department, which technically supervises the union.

Finally, when Han reached out to the propaganda department, he was told, “We don’t have a grasp of such things here. We are the propaganda department. How would we know about the organization of labour unions at coal mining enterprises?” 

On another occasion, in May 2020, union officials in Sichuan’s Guanghan county completely ignored the explosive dangers on their doorstep, even as they were lectured on the importance of work safety by a senior inspector from the provincial federation. “Wherever there is production, the trade union must get involved to ensure work safety,” they were told.

Guanghan county was home to the Jinyan Firework Factory, which had an appalling safety record going back several years. But no one in the county union made the connection. Instead, officials focused on organising the 30 June celebration for the 99th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

Just a week after that event, on 8 July, a stock of highly flammable nitrocellulose stored at the factory spontaneously combusted in the summer heat, igniting a blaze that required the evacuation of 7,100 villagers. Firefighters from ten local fire stations were sent to deal with the fire, but before it could be brought fully under control, another huge explosion severely injured two firefighters and four residents. One of the firefighters later died from his injuries. 

The Work Safety Law is not the only piece of legislation that stresses the union’s responsibility for workers’ safety. The Trade Union Law and the Trade Union Charter also make the union’s obligations very clear, yet trade union officials continue to shy away from their responsibilities and claim work safety has nothing to do with them.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions says it was involved in the drafting of the Work Safety Law, but there is little evidence that it is willing to act on the provisions it contains. The ACFTU still sees its role as propaganda work, helping to “educate” workers about safety rather than mobilizing them to actively participate in workplace safety.

Another important point to note here is that while the revised law does give the union and workers the chance to act, its primary objective is to strengthen administrative control and supervision through rigorous inspections and harsher punishments for transgressions. This top-down approach has been the standard operating procedure for decades now. And while China has seen a steady decline in the number of work-related accidents and deaths (according to official statistics), work accidents are still a daily occurrence across China.

The excessive emphasis on administrative control has only succeeded in creating an endless cycle of tragedy; accidents are followed by investigations, which are followed by rectification campaigns, which are mostly ignored by local enterprises, leading to yet another accident. 

The only way to effectively break out of this cycle is to make sure that the provisions of the Work Safety Law that allow for worker and trade union participation in the supervision of work safety are fully realised. And that means trade union officials will have to leave their comfortable offices, go to at-risk workplaces, organize workers, and take rigorous action against employers who violate the law and threaten the health and safety of workers. 

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