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The way forward for trade unions and workers in China: A new research report from China Labour Bulletin

The mass unemployment, lower wages and job insecurity created by the global economic crisis threatens the livelihoods of millions of Chinese workers, especially rural migrants who have little or no social security net to fall back on. Will the Chinese government and trade unions give workers the help they need, or will workers be forced to take matters into their own hands?

China Labour Bulletin today publishes a new research report, Protecting Workers' Rights or Serving the Party: The way forward for China's trade unions, that provides key insights into these questions by examining the development of the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) over the last two decades, and, more specifically, how it has responded to the growing workers' movement in China. The ACFTU has a mandate to protect the rights and interests of China's workers. However, as the report shows; the organization has become increasingly passive and subservient to its political masters over the last two decades, to the point where it is now unable to satisfy even the most basic demands of migrant workers – decent pay for decent work.

The report asks what does the ACFTU consider its role to be: Is it a defender of workers' rights or a servant of the Chinese Communist Party and government? And it shows that the ACFTU has generally not seen fighting for workers' rights as an end in itself, but rather as a means to an end: the maintenance of social stability and upholding the political authority of the Party. Consequently, workers feel left out in the cold and are now increasingly bypassing the union altogether in their attempts to defend their rights. As evidenced by the wave of taxi strikes that swept the country late last year, workers now stage strikes and protests in a deliberate attempt to force local governments to intervene in their disputes with management.

The report stresses, however, that the all conditions for positive change within the union are present, and that there were signs in 2008 of union officials taking a more robust and pragmatic approach to protecting workers' rights. The ACFTU supported a raft of new labour laws and - at the grassroots level - potentially groundbreaking moves to introduce collective bargaining. Many of these efforts have been put on hold in the wake of the global economic crisis, but the need for change remains very real.

The report concludes that if the ACFTU is to recover some of the ground lost over the last 20 years, regain the trust of the workers and, as a consequence, more effectively undertake its government sanctioned mission of “maintaining social harmony,” it needs to clearly focus on the formation of democratically elected trade unions and the development of collective bargaining.

Also, in a second research report (currently only in Chinese) published this week, CLB examines the most recent developments in the labour and trade union movement from 2007 to 2008. The Workers' Movement in China (2007-08) analyses 100 collective labour disputes that broke out over the last two years. It identifies the main causes of labour disputes in China and the basic demands of the workers. It examines how labour disputes develop and how the government responds to them.

The report looks at the ACFTU's union organizing activities and the specific rights protection it can offer workers. It concludes that the ACFTU is now in real danger of losing its identity as a union altogether and becoming just another branch of government.

The Workers' Movement in China (2007-08) is the third in a biennial series on the workers' movement published by CLB, andwill be available in English from the middle of the year.