China’s trade unions need to stop making excuses and start looking for solutions

23 October 2017

When elderly worker Shi XX was illegally fired from her job at a Guangzhou property management company last month, she approached her local trade union for help. She was met with evasion and numerous bureaucratic obstacles until she gave up and negotiated a settlement with the company herself.

Shi XX had signed a one year contract with the property management company but was fired without any compensation before the end of the contract because she had refused to transfer to another district far from her home in the city centre.

On the morning of 15 September, Shi visited her local trade union office in Changxing sub-district and asked for legal assistance but officials simply referred her to the nearby labour inspectorate.

She then called the Tianhe district trade union who replied they could do nothing since her company did not have an enterprise trade union. Instead they urged Shi to write a formal letter to the company rejecting its transfer notice and then file a case with the labour arbitration committee if the company did not change its decision. In the afternoon, Shi went to the district union to follow up in person but was told to come back the next day after the union lawyer had looked at the case.

As instructed, Shi went back to the district union the next day but was told that because she had already reached retirement age, the employment contract she had signed with the company was not legally binding and therefore she was not protected by labour law. The district union said it could not help and referred her to the local government labour bureau.

Three days later on 19 September Shi went back to the district union who on this occasion told her that even though her company was located in Changxing sub-district, it was actually registered in the Tangxia sub-district, and as such she should go there. Shi persisted with the Changxing sub-district union however who again said there was nothing they could do since she had passed retirement age and was not officially a worker anymore: Again, they referred her back to the district union.

Eventually, Shi gave up on the trade union and reached a personal settlement with the company in which they agreed to terminate the labour relationship and pay her full salary for that month plus three day’s overtime.

As we have seen from numerous other cases where workers have approached the local trade union, officials are far more likely to look for excuses for inaction rather than look for solutions to the worker’s problem. When injured construction worker Zhang Biao went to the Lanzhou Municipal Trade Union for help, for example, he was told they could not help because he was not a union member and instead union officials blamed him for not signing a proper employment contract. Another elderly worker with occupational disease, Wang XX, went the Pengxi County trade union in Sichuan for help on 26 September and, just like Shi XX, he was told there was nothing they could do because he too had passed the retirement age.

This bureaucratic mindset, in which officials will only act within the strictest definition of the law, if at all, needs to change if local trade unions are to fulfil their mandate and properly represent China’s workers.

Workers stage a protest inside the Ansteel Lianzhong Steel complex in Guangzhou, February 2016

In his report to the 19th Party Congress in Beijing this week, General Secretary Xi Jinping repeated his earlier exhortations to the union to improve people’s livelihoods and stressed that China needed to:

Consolidate the tripartite system of government, trade union and enterprise negotiations so as to build harmonious labour relations and ensure that workers get a fair and decent income for their endeavours.

The message seems clear; China’s trade unions need to be an active participant in solving workers’ problems and improving their lives rather than just idly passing the buck on to other government departments or shrugging their shoulders and claiming there is nothing they can do.

This pressure from the very top of the Communist Party will eventually come to bear on the trade union. And as more and more workers do go to their local trade union for help, those officials will be put to the test like never before. Trade union officials will have to be far more pro-active and far more willing to help workers if they are to demonstrate to their bosses in the Party that wages are going up in their district and that labour relations are improving.

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