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Government proposals to speed up labour dispute arbitration lack clout

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security is hoping to clear its ever-growing backlog of labour dispute cases by establishing a “green channel” for dispute resolution and a factory-level “early warning system” to prevent disputes from getting out of hand. 

However, the proposals, made at a national conference on labour dispute mediation and arbitration on 6 January, make no mention of additional financial or human resources, neither do they apparently see a major role for the trade union in dispute resolution.

Vice-Minister Yang Zhiming said at the conference that priority should be given to quickly and effectively resolving disputes between migrant workers and their employers over wage-arrears etc. Arbitration application, case processing and resolution procedures should be streamlined and simplified to this end, he said. However, this is precisely what the new Labour Dispute Mediation and Arbitration Law, enacted on 1 May 2008, was supposed to do. The problem is not so much the overly bureaucratic procedures but the chronic lack of arbitrators in China to process the claims. In the first three quarters of 2008, China's labour dispute arbitration committees accepted 520,000 new cases, a 50 percent increase over the same period in 2007. And the figure is expected to increase sharply in the fourth quarter, reflecting the rise in the number of factory closures and mass-layoffs in the southeast coastal region.

The vice-minister stressed the importance of the early detection and prevention of labour disputes, and proposed the establishment of an enterprise liaison system that could report potential problems to the local authorities who could then mediate the dispute before it got out of hand. It was particularly important, he said, to strengthen the government’s handling of large–scale collective disputes over labour remuneration.

However, this approach will simply provide more work for already over-stretched labour departments. The ministry seemingly does not have confidence in the official trade union to effectively identify and resolve disputes through collective bargaining; rather it sees the union in a more passive role, providing information for the government to act on.

After promising to play a more active role in protecting workers rights and interests last year, there is now a danger that during the current economic crisis that the All-China Federation of Trade Unions will revert to type and act simply as an instrument of government policy rather than an advocate for labour rights.