You are here
ICFTU: Global Survey: Peoples Republic of China
Extracted text on China from the ICFTU Global Survey of Trade Union rights.
Trade union rights are not respected in China. Workers are prevented by law from organising outside the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which is strictly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This was reaffirmed when the Trade Union Law was revised in October 2001.
Worker protests increased dramatically in 2002. In particular, March to May 2002 saw massive waves of workers protest shake the country, especially in the northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang and Liaoning, where workers demonstrated against wage arrears, growing unemployment and corruption, and in favour of independent trade uNIONs.
Chinas Trade Union Law was adopted in 1950. It was most recently amended in 1992 and in October 2001. According to the revised version of the law, the ACFTU and all organisations under it represent the interests of the workers and safeguard their legitimate rights. Trade unions must also observe and safeguard the Constitution ( ), take economic development as the central task, uphold the socialist road, the peoples democratic dictatorship, leadership by the Communist Party of China, and Marxist-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory ( ) and conduct their work independently in accordance with the Constitution of trade unions.
Among their basic duties and functions, trade unions shall coordinate labour relations through consultation, mobilise workers to strive to fulfil their tasks in production and educate them in the ideological, ethical, professional, scientific, cultural and other areas, as well as self-discipline and moral integrity. The law also gives trade unions ample prerogatives in various areas such as democratic management and supervision, which includes removal of managers and major operational and management decisions.
Trade union monopoly
Article 10 of the law establishes the ACFTU as the unified national organisation. Under Art.11, the establishment of any trade union organisation, whether local, national or industrial, shall be submitted to the trade union organisation at the next higher level for approval. Trade union organisations at a higher level shall exercise leadership over those at lower level. The law also empowers the ACFTU to exercise financial control over all its constituents.
Right to strike not protected under the law
The right to strike was removed from Chinas Constitution in 1982 on the grounds that the political system in place had eradicated problems between the proletariat and enterprise owners. But both the Trade Union Law and the Labour Law deal with labour disputes. Under the former, trade unions are to consult employers in case of workstoppages or go-slow actions on behalf of the workers, present their demands and propose solutions. Employers have to try and satisfy the workers reasonable demands. At the same time, trade unions have to assist the employers in restoring the normal order of production and other work. Chinas 1994 Labour Law assigns trade unions the roles of chairing labour dispute mediation committees and of taking parts as a member in tripartite arbitration committees, the latter being chaired by the authorities.
China has ratified neither of the two fundamental ILO Conventions on freedom of association, the right to organise and to bargain collectively (ILO Conventions n° 87 and 98). In February 2001, it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but announced at the same time that provisions guaranteed under Art. 8,1 (a) of the Covenant, namely the right to establish and join workers' organisations of one's own choosing, would be dealt with in accordance with Chinese law. In doing so, the government effectively entered a reservation concerning a fundamental element of the Covenant, thereby putting itself in breach of internationally recognised principles on the law of treaties. It did not, however, enter any such reservation concerning Art. 8,1 (d) of the Covenant which, alone amongst international legal instruments, explicitly guarantees the right to strike.
RIGHTS IN PRACTICE
All attempts to establish trade unions repressed
All attempts at establishing independent workers' organisations are repressed. Organisers are arrested. Some are sentenced to forced labour (officially called reform through labour", or lao gai) after criminal trials in which their rights as defendants are systematically ignored. Others are sent to "rehabilitation through labour" (Lao jiao, formerly translated by the authorities as re-education through labour), a form of administrative detention in principle not exceeding three years and imposed by public security authorities without trial or the right of appeal. In practice, these periods of forced labour can be extended at the authorities' will, as has been proven in many cases. As a result, organisers of independent unions or other collective action by workers, such as protest demonstrations and marches or strikes, mostly remain underground. Fearing arrest, workers protesting at non-payment of wages, corruption, embezzlement of company funds and faked bankruptcies are generally reluctant to send representatives to negotiations with the authorities or the employer.
Incarceration in a psychiatric unit is another form of punishment meted out to labour activists. Wang Wanxing and Wang Miaogen, both involved in the Workers Autonomous Federations (WAF), have been incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals for almost ten years. Another labour activist, Pen Yuzhang, a member of the Changsha Workers Autonomous Federation in 1989, has also been held in a psychiatric institution; government reports about his release have not been independently confirmed.
There have been several recent reports on Wang Wanxin - including his move to a "secure ward" where he was being held with violent patients, and his wife's subsequent appeal. The move was apparently part of the pressure put on her to sign papers releasing him from hospital, but subject to 24-hour surveillance among other conditions.
Mental illness as a result of imprisonment
Cases have been reported of detained labour activists' becoming mentally ill after being severely mistreated in jail or labour camp. One such case is that of Yao Guisheng, a member of the Changsha WAF, responsible for helping WAF leaders to escape arrest in the immediate aftermath of the country-wide repression which followed the Tiananmen Square events. He was sentenced to 15 years detention in October 1989 by the Changsha Intermediate Peoples Court on charges of robbery and assault (trumped up after an argument with a taxi driver), later changed to looting. According to former prisoners, he was periodically placed in solitary confinement for refusing to admit his guilt and not working to the standards required of him. He was regularly beaten and forced to wear shackles. He became mentally ill as a result of this treatment. His case was later taken up by the Special Rapporteur on Torture of the UN Commission on Human Rights. In 1994, the government told the Special Rapporteur that Yao had never been ill-treated.
Role of the ACFTU
The ACFTU strictly enforces its legal monopoly over union organisation. It actively promotes the Party's and government's view that any unauthorised workers' action may lead to "social unrest and chaos". The President of the ACFTU has regularly warned against the spreading of strikes and other workers protests. He also sits on China's highest ruling civilian body, the seven-member Standing Committee of the CCPs Politburo, and in this capacity helps lead the so-called strike hard anti-crime campaign under which several thousand people are executed each year for alleged or proven criminal activities.
Where detailed reports of social unrest are available, workers unanimously dismiss the official trade union as unhelpful or ineffective at best. At local level, ACFTU officials either deny any legitimacy to independent workers' action, by calling it illegal, or acknowledge that they are unable to defend workers' interests in the face of massive restructuring operations. While claiming to consider as its key welfare concern the protection of the more than 21 million workers dismissed in this process, the ACFTU appears to be helpless in negotiating, let alone enforcing, any social safety provisions that may have been obtained. The privatisation of state or other collectively owned assets frequently goes hand in hand with the corruption of local and regional government officials, over which the ACFTU appears to have no influence.
Right to strike
Labour disputes occur on a regular basis. According to official figures, their number rose from 8,150 in 1992 to over 120,000 in 1999. It is difficult to assess the number of cases leading to concrete industrial action. The figure of 100,000 work stoppages or other collective workers protests occurring each year is often quoted, but difficult to verify in practice. However, there are no suggestions of such actions being called or supported by official trade union structures. There are, in fact, regular indications to the contrary.
Collective bargaining remains ineffective
Collective bargaining, if it takes place at all, seems to have little impact in practice. Employment contracts are mostly drawn up by employers, who set wages and working conditions themselves, where they are not defined by law. In fact, however, very often workers are offered no formal contract at all, especially in export processing zones (EPZs). In June 2001, an ACFTU leader in a joint-venture enterprise told a foreign trade union leader that the ACFTU would oppose a wage increase, even if one were voluntarily offered by the employer, a multinational company. The ACFTU official said this would trigger off demands for similar deals by workers throughout the special economic zone (SEZ) where the enterprise was located.
Women form a large part of the workforce and are primarily affected by large-scale economic restructuring. They constitute the overwhelming majority in Special Economic Zones, where their rights are particularly affected, as in the case of pregnancy and prolonged exposure to toxic materials.
EVENTS IN 2002
The Liaoning and Heilongjiang provinces saw major workers protests from March through May. Thousands of angry workers from over 20 factories took to the streets of Liaoyang, demanding a basic living allowance, pension and back pay. They also protested against the corruption of local officials who forced the Liaoyang Ferro-Alloy Factory, which produced metal plates for industry, into bankruptcy. 5,000 people had lost their jobs when the State-owned enterprise shut down. The protests were the culmination of a four-year effort by workers to protect their rights, in the context of the shift from a planned economy to a market economy. This has caused large state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to shut down and has resulted in layoffs of millions of workers. Social unrest was not limited to the northeastern provinces: from south-western Sichuan province to southern Jiangxi province, farmers protested against oppressive taxes and shrinking incomes. The main reason underlying this wave of protest was the workers demand for payment of wage arrears and pension benefits, as well as for proper compensation when their factories went bankrupt. However the action was also organized collectively by workers, in defence of their economic and social interests, and thus falls under the category of independent union activity. The government response to these demonstrations alternated between repression and offers of compensation. Chinas entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in December 2001 merely accelerated the trend of factory shutdowns and layoffs, and 20 million jobs were expected to be lost across the country over the period 2003 - 2006. According to some reports, over 45 million people had already been made redundant during previous years.
Workers attempt to set up independent trade union
Labour protests in Liaoyang and Daqing in March revealed the workers will to organise independent trade unions, although the ACFTU is the only legal trade union organisation on the mainland.
In Liaoyang, the Ferro-Alloy Factory workers formed the All-Liaoyang Bankrupt and Unemployed Workers Provisional Union and elected Yao Fuxin, a laid-off steel worker, as their representative to negotiate with the government. The Daqing oilfield workers formed the Daqing Petroleum Administration Bureau (PAB) Retrenched Workers Provisional Union Committee and elected their own representatives.
To put an end to the wave of coordinated strikes and demonstrations that ensued, the government used the carrot and the stick alternately. On the one hand, it promised short-term pay-offs and quickly set up a basic welfare system - under which 20 million people received a Minimum Living Standard Allowance, compared to 2.8 million in 1999. On the other, it used large numbers of police and military to smash the protests and arrest the leaders.
Independent trade union leaders imprisoned
On March 17, Yao Fuxin was arrested on charges of organising illegal demonstrations. Tens of thousands of Liaoyang workers from over 20 factories, including workers from textiles, paper, printing, machinery, liquid gas and leather goods plants, took to the streets to defend their demands and insisted that Yao Fuxin be released. On March 20, three other worker representatives, Pang Qingxiang, Xiao Yunliang and Wang Zhaoming, were also arrested. The four leaders were accused of collaborating with hostile overseas forces to disrupt social order. At a press conference during the 16th Party Congress on November 11, the ACFTU Deputy Chairman and First Secretary Zhang Junjiu stated that Yao Fuxin had been detained because he had broken Chinese law by carrying out car-bombings and not because he had organised a workers campaign. Similar comments had been voiced by the ACFTU representative in front of the Workers Group of the ILO, during the 90th International Labour Conference in June. To these accusations, the Liaoyang Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU) Chairman Su replied: That is sheer rumour. There is no way that Yao Fuxin was involved in such activities.
On April 11, when Yao Fuxins wife was finally allowed to visit him in Tieling Jail (120 km from Liaoyang), she found him in an alarming physical condition due to what the authorities called a heart attack, although he had no previous medical record of heart or any other disease.
Families of workers leaders harassed
During their detention, the activists rights were frequently violated. They were denied proper medical attention, as well as access to lawyers, and their families were continually harassed by the Public Security Bureau (PSB).
Workers representatives beaten up by police
On April 16, plainclothes police officers beat up Gu Baoshu, another worker representative at the Liaoyang Ferroalloy Factory, before taking him away and interrogating him for 10 hours.
Dubious release of two workers leader
Pang Qingxiang and Wang Zhaoming were released on December 20, on condition that they gather evidence against their fellow protesters, that they remain at home, and that they do not meet with other laid-off workers.
Shortly after the conditional release of Pang Qingxiang and Wang Zhaoming, prominent democracy activist Xu Wenli was released on medical grounds on December 24. Xu had spent 12 years in prison from 1981 to 1993 for his participation in the Democracy Wall Movement. On December 21, 1998, he was sentenced to 13 years' imprisonment for his leading role in the China Democratic Party (CDP). Towards the end of 1997, Xu and other activists released an open letter to Chinese workers, urging them to organise independent trade unions. The authorities repeatedly attempted to link the Liaoyang union organizers to the CDP.
Trade union leaders undergo trial
In early January 2003, charges of subversion, which carry up to life imprisonment or even the death penalty, were brought against Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang. Their trial began on January 15, 2003. Their families were visited every day by PSB officials and warned not to engage in any demonstration in favour of the detained workers. Furthermore, their telephone lines were cut off.
[See China Labour Bulletins campaign to release Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang]
Workers have been attempting for over a decade to create independent trade unions, but these attempts have always been repressed and the workers leaders imprisoned.
Paramilitary police sent in to repress workers protests
During the March - May period, the north-eastern oil town of Daqing [See a selection of CLBs press releases on Daqing] was similarly hit by large-scale worker protests over unemployment benefits, the suppression by the company of winter heating subsidies, and the tripling of pension plan contributions. The protests started on March 1, when 3,000 fired workers gathered in front of the Daqing Petroleum Administration Bureau (PAB). In the following days, some 50,000 oil field workers laid siege each day to a petroleum installation belonging to Chinas biggest oil company, PetroChina. Solidarity demonstrations were held by workers in the Xinjiang and Shengli oilfields, as well as in the Liahe oilfields, in Liaoning Province. More than 80,000 workers from the Daqing oilfield had lost their jobs during the previous years, and the management had announced that they would have to repay almost the whole of their unemployment benefits in the form of social contributions if they wanted to keep their right to a pension. 800 paramilitary police were sent in to disperse protesting workers. A campaign of intimidation followed, in which dozens of workers were detained for periods of up to two weeks, then released on the condition that they no longer participate in the demonstrations. Several representatives of the independently formed PAB Retrenched Workers Provisional Union Committee in Daqing City were detained on March 11 during negotiations with officials. The Heilongjiang Provincial Federation of Trade Unions was quoted by the Ming Pao newspaper, in its issue dated March 28, as declaring: The ACFTU will not tolerate workers organising in this way.
In June, thousands of factory workers from the Nanxuan Wool Textile Factory in Shuikou, Guangdong province, fought running battles with security guards over three days, in what was described by local officials as one of the worst examples of labour unrest in recent years. The clashes started on June 24 when security guards tried to force workers to queue in the company canteen. When 800 of the factorys 15,000 employees walked out in protest against being manhandled workers are frequently bullied and humiliated by security guards the guards attacked them with steel pipes. Scores of workers were injured, and the Yangcheng Evening News, a local newspaper, published photographs showing trails of blood around the factory grounds. The strikers, joined by other workers from the plant, fought back, smashing factory windows and burning a company car at the plant entrance. After three days of violence, riot police were sent in to quell the rioting. The event shed light on the terrible working conditions of millions of young migrant workers from Chinas poor rural provinces, forced to work 12 to 14 hour shifts, seven days a week, for the equivalent of US$2 a day.
Protesting workers beaten up and arrested
Similar repressive measures were deployed at the Guangyuan Textile Factory in Sichuan Province. Some of the 1,000 workers who had held strikes at the factory since March 13 were beaten and harassed and more than a dozen arrested.[for more on Guangyuan and related struggles please see CLBs reports on the subject]
The protests also reached the eastern mining town of Fushun, where thousands of sacked coal miners blocked roads and railways in protest against severance conditions.
Trade unionists jailed
On June 1, Di Tiangui, 57, formerly a state employee at Dazhong Machinery Factory, was jailed in a detention centre in Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi province, on suspicion of establishing an illegal organisation. In fact, he had attempted to set up a national federation for 30 million workers retired from State-owned enterprises, many of whom had been left destitute by the restructuring and privatisation of the Chinese economy. On July 15, Di was formally charged with incitement to subvert State power, a charge that often leads to heavy prison sentences. While in detention, Di remained shackled and handcuffed in a way making it impossible for him to stand upright, according to relatives who visited him on June 21. His health had deteriorated precipitously since he had been arrested. Intimidated by this treatment, other independent labour activists in the area had gone into hiding.
Heavy prison sentences against two trade union rights defenders
Hu Mingjun and Wang Sen, two workers rights activists who are also provincial leaders in Sichuan Province of the China Democratic Party (CDP), which is not recognized by the authorities, were arrested in April and May 2001 respectively, and charged with incitement to subvert the power of the state - a charge that carries a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment. They were given a secret trial at Dazhou Intermediate Peoples Court, over one year later, on May 30 2002, and sentenced to 11 and 10 years imprisonment respectively, after the charge had been changed to subversion, a more serious charge, frequently levelled at independent labour activists. No information was available at years end concerning Zheng Yongliang, who had been arrested at the same time as Hu and Wang.
Long-term labour detainees
Dozens of independent labour activists and leaders jailed in previous years remained in prison in 2002. The following is a partial list. More information about some of these and about earlier cases may be found in previous issues of this Survey.
They include activists, notably members of the Workers Autonomous Federations (WAF), arrested in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, and the protests that followed. Guo Yunqiao, leader of the Yueyang City WAF, in Hunan province, was sentenced to 13 years for leading a workers protest in 1989. Chen Gang, Liu Zhihua and Peng Shi were arrested in or shortly after June 1989, after being prevented from organising a factory protest. Chen Gang was sentenced to death for hooliganism, but was later granted a reprieve and several reductions in his sentence. He is now due for release in November 2007. Liu Zhihua was sentenced for hooliganism. Following three reductions in sentence, he is due to be released in January 2011. Peng Shi, sentenced to life imprisonment for hooliganism, had his sentence reduced and he should be released in March 2006. Liang Qiang, detained following the 1989 pro-democracy protests, was sentenced in January 1990 to 15 years' imprisonment for inciting students and workers to rebel. He is reportedly held in Beijing's Yanqing Prison and due to be released in May 2004.
Shao Liangshen was sentenced to death in September 1989. His sentence has since been reduced and he is due for release in November 2007.
At least four leaders and activists of the underground "Free Labour Union of China" (FLUC), which was an attempt to organise an independent trade union organisation in Beijing, in 1992, remained in detention throughout the year. They are: Hu Shigen, sentenced to 20 years; he suffers from liver, heart and stomach illnesses and has developed a hearing impairment while in jail; Kang Yuchun, sentenced to 17 years, seriously ill with heart problems; Liu Jingsheng, sentenced to 15 years, who has a history of gastric problems, has lost his teeth and suffers from hypertension, and Wang Guoqi, a printer, sentenced to 11 years, seriously ill with scabies.
More recent cases include Cai Guangye, a doctor employed in a military hospital, arrested in December 2001 for supporting protesting workers at a chemicals company in Jilin; Lu Wenbin, a special correspondent for the Textile Daily newspaper, arrested on December 22, 2001 for documenting a strike and interviewing workers at the Huainan Textile Factory in Dafeng; Li Wangyang, a veteran independent trade union activist, sentenced to 10 years forced labour on September 20 2001, and his sister Li Wangling, sentenced to 3 years re-education through labour on June 7 2001 for helping him to publicise his demands; Li Jiaqing, a leader of the independent labour movement in Zhengzhou, Henan province, arrested in August 2000 and charged with disrupting social order on February 13 2001, and Liao Shihua, detained in June 1999 after organising a protest by workers of the Changsha Automobile Electrical Equipment Factory and sentenced in December 1999 to six years' imprisonment. Except for his case, no information about the detainees mentioned in this paragraph was available at years end.
In March 2001, Zhang Shanguang, a teacher from Hunan and a veteran independent labour activist and prisoner, sentenced to 10 years in 1998 under charges of threatening the security of the State after attempting to set up an independent trade union, was repeatedly kicked and punched by prison guards. This was after he organised a petition to end torture and long working hours at the Hunan Provincial Prison N°1, an electrical machinery factory in Yuanjiang city, where he is detained. He suffers from tuberculosis and heart disease, but is reportedly forced to work in shackles and to undertake the hardest work.
Other labour activists who remained in detention in 2002 include Li Bifeng, Zhao Changqing, Xu Wangpin, He Chaohui, Yue Tianxiang, Wang Changchun, Wang Fanghua, Wang Heping, Wang Liguo, Wang Qun, Zhang Jun, Zhu Wanhong and Xu Jian. All had tried to protect workers interests, by protesting, organising or representing workers.