Getting Chinese workers into the movement

China's labour contract law

Source: Socialist Alternative (Australia). Edition 139, March 2009.

As the economic crisis begins to unfold, China is set to emerge as a major concern for the world's labour movement.

This is not to say that Chinese workers themselves are not suffering, along with everyone else, from the crisis. The post-Deng Xiaoping era has seen China tie itself firmly to the world capitalist market, dismantling any semblance of ‘socialised' industry. The state owned enterprises were gutted long ago, while an enlarging private capitalist class has emerged. The Iron Rice Bowl, a system under which many workers had guaranteed employment, health care and housing was conspicuously smashed.

In the past couple of decades, during this turn to privatisation, China's growth rates have indeed been phenomenal. But growth has been slammed by the recent cutbacks in orders for Chinese toys, textiles and footwear - fields in which China had had the competitive advantage of low wages and limited capacity for aggrieved workers to resist. Cutbacks in orders have meant a rapid rise in unemployment.

The hukou and the union system

Under the hukou system, folks with a rural registration had few rights when they went in search of work in the industrialised cities. They did the dirty and dangerous jobs there, such as in building construction or chemical factories, and then could be shunted straight back to the village when they were surplus to requirements. Similarly, young girls have been recruited by textiles and electronics companies; preferred because they tended to accept labour ‘discipline' more easily. The calculation was that such girls had no nearby boyfriends as a distraction. They were also afraid of jeopardising the remittances they could send back to their home provinces.

The economic crisis has hit these rural migrant workers especially hard. Millions of them have returned to their villages. Chen Xiwen, director of the Office of the Central Rural Work Leading Group estimates the number at 20 million, about 15 per cent of China's 130 million rural migrants.

The central government has sent out directives to provincial authorities to find ways to soak up some of those returning workers in provincial employment, but that is not an easy task. It has also suggested enrolling then in retraining schemes, but how do you retrain a newly industrialised worker in a local not-so-industrialised economy? That the central government now fears those returning workers is a given. (More on this below)

The All China Federation of Trade Unions is famously the only union a worker in China is permitted to join. Independent unions have sprung up from time to time but are routinely smashed. The ACFTU is an arm of the central government. Its task is not so much to represent workers in disputes with management as to find ways to reassert ‘harmony' between workers and management, and to ensure production through orderly labour discipline. Many readers would already be aware that it is entirely possible for the manager of one's enterprise in China (or his close relative or colleague) to be one's union representative in the workplace.

In recent years, there have been meetings between ACFTU leaders and leaders of major trade union federations from the USA, Canada and Europe ... and Australia. Due to China's role in the world economy, providing investment opportunities for companies on the lookout for cheap labour, many Western unions have attempted to build bridges with the ACFTU in an attempt to help organise Chinese labour and resist the downward pressure on their own workers' wages created when companies shut down and relocate in China.

So far, the results have been mixed. The ACFTU managed to force Wal Mart to allow unionisation of its workforce, which, given Wal Mart's traditional hatred of unions was a huge step forward . Western unions contributed to a lobbying campaign against Western interests in China who were trying to block labour legislation that would take away easy rights to hire and fire.

But these positive moves tend to be at the legislative end of the spectrum. Shop floor disputation is not being handled by a well developed or well organised union machine. Rank and file workers are not running their own disputes. More workers have begun to discover that they have legal rights, so they turn to labour lawyers or NGOs to bring their cases to court. But this has clogged the courts and leaves the task of real representation, by a proper union, at the base level, uncompleted. Workers are becoming more aware of their rights, but are not being trained up as activists in preparation for representing other workers in other disputes.

The ACFTU recenbtly worked out that it was in its interest to actually recruit migrant workers, and engaged in a recruitment drive. Previous to this, the task of helping workers with compensation claims and so on was taken up by semi-union labour NGOs, especially in the south east. Some small proportion of those rural migrants who were drawn into base level organising have returned home with some experience in organising under their belts. The Chinese government is anxious about even this small number of activists going back to the provinces.

Given the rising resentment in many rural areas over forced acquisition of land, which has led to rioting and demonstrations in recent years, it is no wonder that the central government is particularly concerned that ‘harmony' might be at risk now that the economic crisis has hit.

One interesting example is the comment by ACFTU Vice-Chair Sun Chunlan on 17 February that: "We (the ACFTU) need to keep a close lookout for foreign and domestic hostile forces using the difficulties encountered by some companies to infiltrate and undermine the ranks of migrant workers."

‘Foreign and domestic hostile forces' is code for anyone who is critical of the Chinese government, and anyone who seeks to organise workers outside of the strict control of government authorised bodies. The government will, in other words, be keeping a close eye on anyone who organises among rural migrants, in the cities or in the villages. It especially fears that the relative shop floor radicalisation of many rural migrant workers not be spread to the urban working class.

The new diaspora

China has been described as ‘the floor' in the worldwide race to the bottom of wages and working conditions because it provides the sweatshops in which thousands of companies from outside of China produce their wares. Having to compete with low Chinese wages has depressed the labour market in many other countries, notably in Asia and Latin America.

Fast forward to today. As early as 2006 there were 80,000 Chinese migrant workers in Africa. That is to say: Chinese workers who may live in Africa for years to come. In Africa, Chinese workers on infrastructure projects are resented by local workers not only because they would prefer to have been awarded  those jobs themselves, but also because the wages paid may be lower even than local wage rates. Chinese workers in Africa, or elsewhere, will certainly be under pressure not to complain, for fear of being sent back to China.

In Canada in 2008, a former Honeywell Electronics plant was purchased by the Chinese Silian Instrument Group. Canadian workers there were concerned that training Chinese workers meant perhaps they were preparing for the day when they would lose their jobs to those Chinese trainees. Prior to the takeover they were already concerned about low wage rates. The IBEW (a Canadian electronics union) managed to recruit workers at the Silian plant. Their concern grew when Chinese management "suggested" that topics such as "Tibet, Falun Gong, fair wages and other subjects would be best left out of the workplace".

The international labour movement needs to be particularly vigilant about the possible export of lower wages and conditions from China directly into other countries.

Of course it would be morally and industrially wrong to suggest that Chinese workers should not seek work outside of China. It would be short-sighted to try to freeze Chinese companies out on the basis of some sort of generalised hostility. It is fantastically important for South African, Canadian, Australian - or from wherever - trade unions to recruit Chinese workers and fight for their pay and conditions to match those of local workers.

Every step that brings Chinese workers closer to demanding their rights, experiencing better organisation and unifying with a genuine labour movement is a positive step. Today's economic crisis doesn't push that task on to the back burner, it makes the task all the more urgent.

Mark is active in Australia Asia Worker Links (AAWL).