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ACFTU official’s reckless comments could endanger workers’ rights

The global economic crisis has prompted several Chinese officials to make short-sighted and reckless comments. In November 2008, the Guangdong union federation announced it would suspend collective bargaining in enterprises experiencing difficulties. And in January, that province’s procuratorate said it would go easy on bosses who committed “ordinary” crimes. However no comments have been more potentially damaging or retrograde than the assertion made by ACFTU Vice-Chair Sun Chunlan on 17 February that: “We need to keep a close lookout for foreign and domestic hostile forces using the difficulties encountered by some companies to infiltrate and undermine the ranks of migrant workers.” 

China Labour Bulletin’s Cai Chongguo, in an editorial on our Chinese website, explains that Sun’s comments have already harmed the new spirit of social dialogue that emerged in China last year. If adhered to, her comments could seriously erode workers’ rights and interests, further degrade the ACFTU, and impede the work of labour lawyers, journalists and non-governmental organizations. Thankfully, as far as we can tell, the specific comment about hostile forces has not been repeated in any other ACFTU speech since 17 February, perhaps signifying that the leadership now realizes that Sun over-stepped the mark.

Many of the issues touched on by Cai in the editorial are developed and expanded upon in CLB’s Chinese language research report on the ACFTU, an edited version of which will be published in English this month.

The editorial, published on 24 February, is translated below.

 

I am sure that that the majority of the 74 miners who died in the 22 February mine disaster in Tunlan, Shanxi Province, were migrant workers. This prompts me to think of the comments made by ACFTU Vice-Chair Sun Chunlan five days earlier on 17 February that, “At present we need to keep a close lookout for foreign and domestic hostile forces using the difficulties encountered by some companies to infiltrate and undermine the ranks of migrant workers.” Even in the Mao Zedong era of “grasp class struggle and all problems will be solved,” we never saw this kind of speech blatantly urging the union to play the role of “worker police.”

As expected, as soon as these words came out, official commentary immediately became harsher. During last year’s taxi driver strikes, the majority of local governments held talks with driver representatives, saying they wanted to meet their more important demands. In a short time, a spirit of dialogue and negotiation to resolve social conflicts had spread all over China. Two days after Sun Chunlan’s speech, however, according to a report in Guangdong’s Southern Daily, the director of Guangzhou’s Traffic Commission, Xian Weixiong put on a dour face at the general meeting of Guangzhou’s taxi industry, and claimed that after the Guangzhou taxi strike at the end of last year, “It was discovered that there were illegal groups behind it, and these illegal groups were not taxi drivers at all.”

Clearly, Sun Chunlan’s comments have already disrupted last year’s atmosphere of social dialogue and can potentially do tremendous damage to the workers’ struggle to protect their legal rights.

First, this speech could lead to the politicization of disputes between management and labour, as well as renewed suspicion and a hostile, tense atmosphere between labour, management, and local governments. It will make it more difficult for dialogue to occur between labour, management, and others in society, thereby intensifying social conflict. We have seen that strikes, protests, sit-ins, and complaints to the authorities by Chinese workers, including migrant workers, have increased by the day since the 1990s, to the point where they are becoming a part of daily urban life in China. Virtually no municipal or provincial government leaders have escaped dealing with workers’ and other protests in their areas. There are virtually no newspapers that have not reported on problems such as the lives of laid-off, unemployed workers or the non-payment of wages and harsh working conditions of migrant workers. As a result, ordinary people and government officials at all levels no longer see labour-management conflicts such as worker strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations as unusual. They rarely panic in the face of such events and no longer, or very rarely, see them as politically-motivated “provocation and manipulation by a small minority trying to overturn the government.” Although the suppression of the workers’ movement continues, the repressive tactics seen a number of years ago, like mass arrests and harsh sentences for worker representatives, have clearly diminished in favour of dialogue, mediation, arbitration or civil legal procedures.

Everyone knows that workers, especially migrant workers, are isolated and unaided, and have an extremely high level of tolerance. They will not, and dare not, engage in collective resistance unless they really can’t go on, or reach the extreme limits of their patience. In addition, even if protest actions like strikes and demonstrations occur, such actions will very quickly dissipate if management or the local government meets even a small portion the workers’ demands. Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai appears to have finally recognized this social reality. When he was the governor of Liaoning Province in 2002, he severely suppressed the Liaoyang worker strikes and protests, and arrested and harshly sentenced worker leaders Yao Fuxing, Xiao Yunliang, and others. But, when the large-scale taxi driver strike took place in Chongqing at the end of last year, it seemed as though Bo had become a new man, initiating a meeting with representatives of the striking taxi drivers and publicly agreeing to the strikers’ demands. A major strike was thereby calmed through negotiations and dialogue.

Of course, such government intervention is not the ideal way to resolve disputes but, compared to past scenarios of “political plots,” it does represent important change and progress. Sun Chunlan’s speech was precisely aimed at derailing this social change and progress. It may not only lead to more persecution of those migrant workers daring to protest, but may also result in a giant step backward by society.

Second, if Sun Chunlan’s call is adhered to, the ACFTU will go further down the road of relying on management and even more on government and the Party, and even relying on the national security apparatus. The result would make the ACFTU isolated not only among workers, but among society as a whole. Just think: a union organization that does not protect workers, but instead designates and attacks non-existent “hostile forces” among workers, particularly among the most discriminated against and exploited group of workers. This would be loathsome, indeed!

In recent years, especially since the Labour Contract Law was promulgated in 2007, change has been occurring in more and more of the ACFTU’s local and enterprise-based unions. Many provincial and municipal unions formulated specific implementing regulations for the Labour Contract Law, established worker training centres serving migrant workers and explored collective bargaining between labour and management. The leaders of more and more local governments and unions now do not want accusations of pandering to the boss to threaten their own future as officials. Furthermore, no one can guarantee that the families, relatives, and friends of officials and union cadres will not be fired or their wages not paid. This trend toward change in the lower-level ACFTU organizations is its only way out, and it is needed by China’s workers, especially migrant workers.

Sun Chunlan has interrupted this positive progress. Yes, her speech mentioned “strengthening the monitoring system for migrant worker assistance funds, launching skills training for migrant workers, and, especially, providing solutions for migrant workers’ needs for micro-loans to establish their own businesses.” But is clear that what she really emphasized was “we need to keep a close lookout for foreign and domestic hostile forces using the difficulties encountered by some companies to infiltrate and undermine the ranks of migrant workers.” This uniquely combative language is far more newsworthy and has much more of a social impact.

Third, Sun Chunlan’s speech could scare off non-governmental organizations, lawyers, and journalists who aim to help migrant workers. What are “hostile forces?” Who is “hostile” to whom? With the assistance of NGOs, lawyers, and journalists, workers are “hostile” to those bosses who are often the fair-weather friends of local government officials. When workers go to court and use legal procedures to get wages in arrears and overtime or injury compensation, or try to reduce work hours or increase wages, are they to be considered “hostile forces?” What does it mean to “to infiltrate and undermine the ranks of migrant workers?” Do migrant workers even have “ranks?” The lawyers, journalists, and NGOs who often spend time with migrant workers and assist them, as well as university students and intellectuals who go into companies and among migrant workers to conduct social surveys or scholarly research, and the increasing number of college graduates who cannot find work suited to their specialization and so work alongside migrant workers; are all of these people “infiltrating” the migrant workers? Will the cadres at the ACFTU be required to monitor and “keep a close lookout” on them?

In recent years, government statistics and media reports show that the number migrant worker protests are in their tens of thousands. The causes of these protests are all related to wages, work and overtime shifts and subsidies, working conditions, acknowledgement of and compensation for occupational injuries, and the deplorable mistreatment of workers. We have never seen any reports of migrant worker hostility towards the one party system or state power. Clearly, Ms Sun’s comments have no basis in fact whatsoever. Indeed, her comments make her sound more like the deputy head of the Public Security Ministry than the ACFTU.

Chinese workers, especially migrant workers, have become the first victims of the economic crisis. Not only are large numbers of workers unemployed, with migrant workers forced to return home, but also employed workers’ wages are declining at every salary level. Many government officials are even publicly calling for migrant workers to “lower their wage expectations” when seeking employment. We are also seeing the “three stops:” stopping wage increases, stopping trial collective bargaining, and stopping the implementation of the Labour Contract Law; these are becoming national phenomena. If this continues, the minimal but hard-won progress in the past few years in such areas as labour-management relations and the grassroots changes in the ACFTU may be lost. This will not only make the lives of workers, especially migrant workers, more difficult, it will also inhibit China’s economic recovery.

Sun Chunlan is seemingly not concerned with such serious matters. Instead she is looking around among migrant workers’ groups in search of “hostile forces.” Right now, she is probably alert and working hard to prevent “foreign and domestic hostile forces” from “infiltrating and undermining” the family members of those dead miners in Tunlan.

Cai Chongguo. 24 February, 2008.