As part of China Labour Bulletin's ongoing trade union reform and accountability program (工会改革观察与促进), last month we investigated the response of local trade union officials in the central city of Xinyang to two work-related accidents that occurred in March and April, respectively, both in the city’s main urban district of Pingqiao.
Xinyang is a fairly typical but generally anonymous Henan city, located in the heart of China. It has a population of around six million, living both in the urban centre and its surrounding rural districts. Xinyang’s workers are employed in a wide range of industries from mining and construction to manufacturing and services.
Like everywhere else, Xinyang has its fair share of serious work-related accidents, and the attitude and actions of the trade union and government officials working there are sadly indicative of officials in China as a whole.
Two days after seven miners died in a flooded mine in Xingji township on 13 March, the mayor of Xinyang chaired a meeting on the incident and called on local officials to learn important lessons from the accident and to hold those responsible to account.
CLB staff followed up by telephoning the township government and trying to locate officials responsible for work safety. We were told everyone was in a meeting and that no one could discuss safety issues in the district. We left our contact information but no one returned our call.
We then called the Pingqiao district trade union and eventually located an official who was familiar with work safety issues and was willing to respond to our enquiries regarding the 13 March accident and the construction site accident on 7 April in which a worker fell to his death.
In both these cases, we were told, the main role of the union was only to assist in the local government’s accident investigation. However, the official we spoke to was unfamiliar with the details because, she said, the head of the investigation team had been reassigned to poverty alleviation work in the countryside. It was unclear if either of the enterprises where the accidents occurred had established trade unions; the official did, however, confirm that there were no mining or construction sector trade unions in the district.
Generally, the official explained, the district trade union will only become involved in accident investigations if it is invited by the work safety commission set up by the local government, and then only in a junior capacity, assisting the leading officials by contacting workers to ascertain their demands. The core members of the investigation team—those making the decisions and publishing reports, etc.—will all be from other departments, such as the office of emergency management.
The local trade union does not have the authority to conduct its own investigation, gather evidence, or report illegal activities or potential work hazards, the official explained.
You know, we trade union officials need to bear in mind that we are under the leadership of the Party and must listen to Party orders and follow their lead in accident investigations. We have no authority to go to the accident scene, we can only listen to orders from the Party committee and the safety commission.
She then elaborated on exactly how powerless local unions were in terms of protecting workers’ health and safety:
Our role in accident investigations is laid out in the Trade Union Law. But we have no real power to arbitrate or make final decisions. No, we do not have any such power… To put it frankly, the trade union does not have any power or authority. We can only try to argue for the best interests of workers involved, to protect their rights as much as we can. But we have no final say on this. Even though we want to act positively, we cannot guarantee anything. Trade union officials cannot override local government officials. The union is too weak.
Currently, the main role of the trade union in terms of work safety appears to be in carrying out government-led propaganda, distributing work safety literature, and occasionally conducting on-site safety inspections. It is the local government that is responsible for implementing work safety regulations and supervising enterprise compliance.
It is clear from the data on daily workplace accidents and worker fatalities in China, however, that this current system is failing China’s workers. There is an urgent need for the union to emerge from the shadow of the Party and local government and start to organize workers on the ground so that the workers themselves can play the key role in workplace safety and accident prevention.
Currently, workers feel alienated from the union; they do not have any sense of ownership in the union and do not trust it to effectively represent their interests. Local unions have a lot of work to do in restoring that trust and making sure enterprise unions can utilize the power of frontline workers to ensure that safe work practices are maintained and that all necessary steps are taken to prevent work accidents.
For more details and original interview transcripts, please refer to our report,工会改革观察与促进第十一期 复工复产与安全生产 , published on our Chinese-language website on 13 July.