09/11/2009, 00.00
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Chinese workers occupy factories, set up road blocks, only way to seek justice

Undefended by trade unions and without any other remedy, workers often block factories and roads around them to get the authorities’ attention. The latter end up forced to mediate with management. Government-controlled trade union is noticeable for its absence. Here is the third part of a report on labour relations in China.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – In 2008, no less than 87,000 incidents of social unrest were economically motivated, this according to official sources. Often workers go on strike and block factories to defend their basic economic rights, because the official trade union usually does nothing.

Although there are no official data about such protests, the highly regarded China Labour Bulletin, which promotes workers’ rights, listed in a recent survey tens of cases in which workers took to the streets, clashing often with police that the authorities deployed to defend the interest of management.

In Shenzhen (Guangdong) on 19 August 2007 more than 10,000 employees of the Feihuang Electronics Company put up road blocks to fight wage cuts and longer working hours. They were scattered by police and nothing is know as to whether they gained anything or not.

In September 2007 about 10,000 workers employed by the Luoyang White Horse Group in Henan marched in the streets to complain about corruption in management and to demand a fair severance pay. In this case too police removed the road blocks but the local government eventually intervened to mediate the dispute and workers got some of their demands. 

In Dongguan (Guangdong) on 27 November 2007 thousands of people blocked roads against higher deductions from their salaries for canteen costs. Again, after workers were removed by police the authorities convinced management to withdraw the increase.

In some instances violent clashes took place, like in Zhuzhou (Hunan) on 3 December 2008 when about 1,000 workers from the Prince Group blocked roads to demand payment of back pay.

The script is almost always the same. Workers who have been swindled out of their pay or other economic right take to the streets to get the attention of a hitherto uninterested government, and only then does the latter act, often getting companies to meet workers demands.

In all this the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the single trade union controlled by the Communist party, does not precious little to mediate between workers and management. In mainland China no other trade union is allowed to exist, not even at the factory level.

Over time this take-to-the-streets approach to labour relations has become generalised, not only when workers want to get their back pay, but also in every other matter: arbitrary changes to working conditions, company failure to enforce sectoral legislation, and much more.

ACFTU has a membership of 212 million, but it rarely does anything, except at a political level. For instance, it launched high-profile campaigns to conclude collective labour contracts at all Wal-Mart stores in China but has done nothing to represent workers with local companies.

The union federation is controlled by the Communist Party, which also selects local government officials. Under such circumstances the union adheres to the same principles as local authorities, which is to give priority to short term economic development at workers’ expense.

Hence, left on their own, workers end up taking to the streets, where they put themselves in harm’s way in clashes with police with a good change of getting arrested.

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See also
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Jia Qinling: Maintaining order and social stability in Tibet
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