02/18/2009, 00.00
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“Hostile forces” stirring up workers and the jobless

The deputy chairman of China’s main state-backed union federation calls for vigilance. The loss of 20 million jobs and the lack of justice for workers are however the real problems. Without independent trade unions there is a great danger that exasperated people might turn to violence.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Greater police control of unemployed workers and action against agitators are what is needed, this according to Sun Chunlan, deputy chairman of the state-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).

The authorities must guard against “hostile forces within and outside China using the difficulties of some enterprises to infiltrate and bring trouble to rural migrant workers,” Sun said during a teleconference with officials.

Some 87,000 incidents of mass protest or labour unrest were recorded last year, largely as a result of the economic crisis, often triggered by plant closures and unpaid wages.

The global economic crisis has cut deeply into China’s exports to the United States and Europe. As a result 20 million jobs have been officially lost just in Guangdong province, where one third of China’s total exports are manufactured.

It is also not uncommon for closing plants to default on the final wages and severance pay they owe their laid off workers.

The difficult situation is such that the authorities have delayed the implementation of a new law protecting labour rights that was supposed to come into effect on 1 January. Instead many workers have had to accept wages below the minimum wage just to keep their job.

Rising unemployment and growing social unrest are giving the government the jitters.

Deputy Chairman Sun said that the official trade unions will extend aid to more than 10 million migrant workers in the form of job training or “living assistance”.

Then again, the country has about 130 million migrant workers, and over the past few months, many of them have clashed with police because of companies going out of business failing to pay them their last wages.

Independent trade unions might mediate between workers and the authorities, moderate grievances and stave off protests which might otherwise turn violent if left unchecked, but not for someone like ACFTU Deputy Chairman Sun, whose silence on the matter says a lot about official attitudes.

By contrast, many experts are very concerned about the lack of such institutional channels to address social problems, a vacuum that leaves much of China at the mercy of those in power.

Case in point: dozens of shop tenants and workers protested outside a market in Beijing's Russian district on Wednesday, as part of a dispute over rent with the building's landlord, whose reaction to the protest was to simply shut down the shop owned by the group’s spokesman and throw all of his stock away.

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