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Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions Declared Migrant Workers' Organisation in Zhejiang Illegal

On July 10, 2002, Nanfang Dushibao in Guangdong ran a commentary, applauding the setting up of an autonomous migrant workers' organisation in the coastal province of Zhejiang. Titled 'Setting Up of Autonomous Organisations by Migrant Workers Deserves Encouragement', the article pointed out that Guangdong Province hosts the largest number of migrant workers and yet their rights were widely violated. It went on to suggest that the 10 million migrant workers in Guangdong should also form legal organisations to protect their own rights.

This open and direct statement came after its sister paper, Nanfang Weekly, reported in details the setting up of Ruian Migrants' Management Association (RMMA) on July 4.

There are 230,000 migrants in Ruian City, representing one-fifth of the city's’stotal population. According to Nanfang Weekly, the RMMA was set up on May 31 with the approval of the city's home affairs bureau and the election of its 23 directors (6 of them were migrants of whom one was elected as vice-president). Its formation was built on the success of the pilot Migrants Association in Chenzhaiwang Village under the city's administration.

The village-level attempt came out of the local 'fiscal crisis' after the State Development and Planning Commission and Bureau of Finance issued a decree in October 2001 demanding that local governments stop charging illegal fees to migrant workers and temporary residents. Local authorities in Ruian used to collect Rmb 60 from each migrant worker, but starting in January this year, the only item they could charge were temporary residence permits at the processing fee of Rmb 8.

Chenzhaiwang's migrant population of 1,500 (as against 958 permanent residents in the village) provides the workforce to the village's 29 factories. They are also seen by local authorities as the hotbed of crimes. The practical concern to maintain social order at low budget opened the way to community-based self-management organisations. On April 1, the Migrants' Association was established, and 1,450 migrants joined the group.

The Migrants' Association was not set up as a workers' organisation but some of its services are typical trade union activities, namely legal counselling and assistance in labour disputes for migrant workers. According to Nanfang Weekly, the Migrants' Association received high acclaim from both the public and the authorities of Ruian City, laying the groundwork for the RMMA.

However, the positive commentary from Nanfang Dushibao met with stern rejection from the Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), which obviously took the RMMA as a full-fledged workers?organisation.

The very next day after the commentary, Nanfang Dushibao ran a GFTU statement which declared the RMMA illegal, making reference to Article Two of the Trade Union Law which enshrines the monopoly of the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions:

"The All-China Federation of Trade Unions and its trade union organisations represent the interests of the workers and protect the legitimate rights of the workers in accordance with the law."

Defending the monopoly, the statement concluded that

"Any other workers' organisations formed in ways that violate [Article Two of the Trade Union Law] are illegal."

Given the official and legal status of the RMMA, GFTU's split-second move came as a surprise, but not beyond our understanding. ACFTU president, Wei Jianxing, has repeatedly reminded his ranks of their "mission":

"The nature and mission of [ACFTU] determine that [we] must uphold the leadership of the Party, and...carry out [our] work with conscious consideration of the general situation of the Party and the state,...[and] consolidate the legitimacy of the Party...ACFTU at all levels...must resolutely uphold the unity of the working people and trade union organisations, and guard against the plot of hostile forces at home and abroad to ...westernise and split up the working people and trade union organisations."(Preface to 'Training Courses for Trade Union Officials', People’s Daily Online, 13/8/2002)

GFTU's knee-jerk reaction, and the recent arrest of independent trade unionist Di Tiangui on July 5, 2002 on charges of "inciting to subvert state power" affirm the political taboo of workers' organising. However, workers all over the country are challenging the taboo and the ACFTU by various degrees when they take to the streets in hundreds and thousands ?the official channels have failed them, and the ACFTU is shunned outright.

China Labour Bulletin