Comment on Han Dongfang’s view of the ACFTU

On June 26, 2011, our friend Han Dongfang released a striking commentary in the Guardian arguing that the International Trade Union Confederation should “discuss affiliation with the ACFTU.”  He called on the international trade unions to admit the Chinese official trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU),so as to help the latter to “better serve its members and eventually become a real trade union.”The reason he gives is that he sees signs of genuine reform within the ACFTU in representing workers’ interests, stating that“already this year the ACFTU has introduced initiatives designed to boost workers' pay through negotiations with factory managers and business federation leaders.”He gives the example of the Nanhai Honda automotive plant’s pay rise after the union negotiated with the management this March to illustrate his case.However, the negotiations in Honda since last June reveal openly the administrative power of the ACFTU granted by the state and the party. We are worried about the rapid replication of such an ends-oriented model of collective negotiation in China which is just to be strengthening the only official trade union institution while illegitimising workers’ strikes and democratic elections of the trade union.

Certainly if lower level ACFTU officials begin to ask company managers to raise wages this is much better than when they do the otherwise. During the 2008-9 economic crisis,ACFTU either stood behind the local government’s decision to freeze wages or allowed the business sector to stop paying contributions to social security funds. The change is too small a step, however, to be seen as a sign of an important and ‘genuine’ reform of the ACFTU. The achievement trumpeted by the ACFTU is not as a result of real collective bargaining. In fact the ACFTU’s intention is clear when it describes what it promotes as jitixieshang (collective consultation), not jititanpan (collective bargaining), because the tone of ‘bargaining’ may suggest some kind of confrontation between employers and employees, which is deemed undesirable for the official trade union.

Even if one day the ACFTU does begin to acknowledge the term collective bargaining, this does not necessarily refer to an encouraging act in itself. The international trade union movement rests on three fundamental guiding principles: the freedom to form unions, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike.Only when all three are recognised simultaneously,by the state and the employers, not only in words but in deeds, can each and every one of these rights be meaningful to the employees. In addition to this is the need to enjoy civil liberties, which are indispensible for the labour movement as well. In China,civil liberties are virtually absent. To argue that the ACFTU is making headway in its reform and is better able to represent workers’ interests, given this situation, is more like wishful thinking than an objective appreciation of reality.

The ACFTU might have occasionally taken some initiatives in promoting labour laws or made attempts at negotiation with employers for a pay rise at some companies, but this alone cannot compensate for what workers have lost. Workers are deprived of basic civil liberties in general and the three basic labour rights in particular. This means that when workers’ legitimate interests are denied by unscrupulous employers, and when the judicial system is far from being impartial, workers remain defenceless because they are not allowed to stage any strike or protest to make their voices heard. This makes China an ideal place for capitalists.

Dongfang has faith in the ACFTU’s reform, but our work on the ground shows that the workers think otherwise.

Workers explicitly respond that in reality, unions simply do not represent their interests and that when they consulted union officials on how to form a union,they were met with indifference and discouragement by all levels of the ACFTU.Our interview with workers concerning the implementation of the Labour Contract Law also shows that over 60% did not know that they were entitled to the right to ask the unions to “enter into collective contracts with enterprises” and unions fail to play a role in educating workers in this respect. Another survey with workers at Foxconn regarding the role and function of unions showed similar results. If there is a labour dispute, workers are unwilling to trust the unions due to the fact that many union leaders are part of the management themselves at companies.

Dongfang’s comments have exaggerated, if not grossly overrated, the isolated moves of the ACFTU as a huge step forward, while forgetting the much broader picture of the continuous absence of basic rights in China, and in particular, the full right of workers to freely choose and recall their representatives at the workplace without retaliation.Thus, we do not think that Dongfang’s view on the ACFTU would be embraced by the working masses in China.

July 27th, 2011

Asia Monitor Resource Centre

Globalization Monitor  

Worker Empowerment