01/04/2007, 00.00
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Foreign companies and the party together against workers and independent trade unions

The Communist Party accuses companies of discouraging the creation of trade unions. Companies accuse the party of trying to control workers. Exploitation is boundless because there is no independent trade union movement; anyone who dares organise goes straight to jail.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Low salaries, heavy workloads (up to 15 hours per day) and a lack of safety measures are what Chinese workers face in foreign-owned companies, this according to a report released on December 31 by the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Such factors are among the major causes of an increase in labour disputes in the booming southern Guangdong and Fujian provinces. Hence the need for a labour contract legislation and relevant laws as early as possible and the establishment of a mechanism to coordinate labour relations.

Under Chinese law employees of any company with a work force of at least 25 people have the right to form a union. But foreign employers often are accused of pressuring employees not to organise.

Earlier in December, employees at Wal-Mart's China headquarters set up a branch, which followed the success in setting up unions at the US retailer's outlets. In China Wal-Mart employs 36,000 in 68 stores.

Official figures indicate that by the end of last year there were 150,000 foreign-owned companies in China. Altogether foreign investors have established more than 570,000 businesses in China, employing 25 million people by the end of 2005.

The issue of workers rights’ at foreign companies and factories has been on the rise with the Communist Party and its affiliated All-China Federation of Trade Unions trying to expand their presence in foreign companies to keep pace with a fast-changing society amid capitalist-style economic reforms. For both party and federation this is crucial since state-owned industry has slashed millions of jobs whilst private companies have created tens of millions more.

Foreign companies reject the accusations. They point out that existing trade unions in China are a creation of the Communist party and that free trade unions are impossible. They claim that Chinese sub-contractors are to blame for forcing workers to work overtime without pay. Finally, they suggest that they have good system of labour inspections and charge that public controls are inefficient.

In reality, both foreign companies and the government benefit.

A recent survey of 1,800 U.S. businesses in China by the US Chamber of Commerce in Beijing found that the profit margins for 42 percent of them were higher than their average worldwide margins.

Similarly, the Chinese government benefits enormously from a labour-driven export economy based on cheap goods and on a weak or inexistent trade union movement.

Independent experts note that every night 200 million Chinese workers go to bed in overcrowded dormitory rooms after working 15 or more hours per day.

Jenhangir Pocha, in a study published by the San Francisco Chronicle (Oct. 15, 2006) explains that the issue of workers’ rights applies to both Chinese and foreign companies. Having trade unions is not enough; they must be independent and act on behalf of those they represent. But China the Communist Party has banned any independent trade union activity fearing loss of control over the working class.

Pocha quotes Pang Qing Xiang, 60, from Liaoning, who spent nine months in prison for organising unpaid workers in his factory. Anyone daring to organise workers ends up sooner or later in jail, Pang said.

About 35 labour activists are indeed languishing in Chinese prisons, according to human rights groups.

Han Dongfang, founder of the first independent trade union in 1989 (during the Tiananmen Square incidents), spent three years in jail before he was expelled from China on health grounds. He now is the director of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. 

For him, the argument that independent unions will automatically lead to social instability is a red herring used by vested interests that benefit from the continued exploitation of workers.

"In the U.S. in the 1920s, it was argued that trade unions would turn the country into a communist state, but it didn't happen," he said Han. "Now, ironically, in China they are saying trade unions will turn the country into a democracy. I don't think so."

Working on behalf of workers against their employers, he and other supporters have brought 30 labour rights cases to Chinese courts and won most of them.

“We can help only a few people,” he admits, “but through this legal battle we also provide the idea that workers should get together."  (PB) 

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