09/10/2009, 00.00
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Hunan: 5,000 miners on strike for weeks amid trade unions’ indifference

The authorities want workers to give up severance pay if they want to keep their jobs. In Communist China trade unions are noticeable for their lack of action. Anyone who goes on strike can be arrested. Here is the second part of a report on labour relations in China.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – In Communist China trade unions are not in the business of defending workers’ rights. Instead the latter are on their own to fight for their wages. What happened to the workers of the Hunan Coal Industry Group in Hunan province is a case in point. More than 5,000 miners employed by the company have been on strike since 22 August demanding to be treated fairly in its impending privatisation. Many are afraid that they might lose part of their wages.

It all began when the State Assets Administration Committee decided the company was to establish a joint venture with other Hunan mining companies. Its plan included privatising some of the company’s mining operations and list it on the stock exchange within three years.

As part of this Jinzhushan Mining Company bosses drew up a new contract which they did not however bring to the attention of the workers. Instead, managers at its Tuoshan mine, the first mine run by the group to carry out the plan, had the contracts "pre-signed" for its workers. At the start of shifts company officials stood at the mine entrance and told “workers to fingerprint the contract to indicate a `yes', otherwise they would not be allowed to work.”

Surprised, many miners signed without reading the new contract which required they give up severance pay. This entailed compensation that amounted to one month’s wages for every year they had worked for their employer. Many miners in the state-owned enterprise have worked for up to 30 years

Miners in Tuoshan passed the information to the company's three other mines, and workers there went immediately on strike, demanding that their rights be upheld. At the beginning they slept in meeting rooms in the mine's office building, but after the doors were locked they camped out in hallways around the clock.

In Communist China the All-China Federation of Trade Unions is party-controlled; so is local government whose officials decide local economic development.

In order to pursue their careers local officials have to promote fast economic growth, even if it comes at the expense of the environment, people’s health and workers’ rights.

This typically results in workers, not only not receiving assistance from the trade unions, which intervene rarely anyway, but in them facing challenges to their right to strike peacefully.

He Yiming, a 37-year-old coal miner who has worked for the Jinzhushan Mining Company for more than 10 years, told the South China Morning Post that city authorities declared the strike illegal.

“They said if we did not get back to work immediately, they might start detaining strike leaders,” He said. “All we want is an answer,” he added.

At the same time, workers accuse the company of recruiting local thugs at 200 yuan per person per day to form a “mine protection corps” to forcibly remove strikers from the mine premises.

The failure of trade unions to mediate between workers and management makes matters worse. In August up to 400 steel workers besieged the offices of the Linzhou Iron and Steel Company in Henan, in which they held a government official hostage in protest against a privatisation plan that would have laid off thousands of employees.

In late July, thousands of workers at state-owned Tonghua Iron and Steel Group attacked and killed a representative from a private steel company during a massive riot in Jilin province. The representative was there for a takeover deal that would have led to massive lay-offs.

For the first part of the report, see “China looses 41 million jobs, 40% of the global loss, because of crisis”, AsiaNews, 9 September 2009.

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