The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has come out with a series of recent policy goals and policies designed to help workers get through the current financial crisis and maintain social stability. But, these policies, however well intentioned, continue to reinforce the ACFTU’s misplaced identity. Meanwhile, an ACFTU vice-chairman has warned about foreign and domestic enemy forces using the economic crisis to infiltrate and cause damage to China’s migrant workers.
On February 12, ACFTU Chairman Wang Zhaoguo gave a speech at an international forum entitled “2009: Economic Globalization and Unions”. In the speech, Wang recapped the CCP and the government’s recent policy measures to combat the economic crisis and to save the economy from going into turmoil. He then confirmed the union’s support of these policies and added that the union would help in these efforts, especially in terms of maintaining economic growth, maintaining stability, increasing domestic demand, promoting a series of policies to help achieving stable and equal economic growth, while also promoting policies dealing with enterprises stopping production, limiting production, shutting down, going bankrupt and laying off workers, social employment pressure, enterprises not paying wages in arrears and social security benefits, and laying off staff.
In particular, he mentioned that the union would do three main things:
1) The ACFTU, enterprises, and workers would launch a “mutually agreed upon actions” (gongtong yueding xingdong). On the one hand, this would entail enterprises recognizing their social responsibility, not laying off workers, stabilizing employment positions, negotiating and ensuring salaries are paid, increasing worker training, and increasing workers’ technical abilities. On the other hand, it would entail guiding the vast amount of workers to firmly believe, stand in their positions, and work hard for their enterprises in order to get through difficult times.
2) In light of the huge hit that the financial crisis has brought to China, the government would increase its help to workers, such as “heart warming” activities (song wennuan xingdong, literally “gifting warmth activities”). In this regard, the ACFTU would do this to help the urban laid-off (xiagang) and returning migrant workers, and the union would also provide tuition for the kids of workers who face difficulties.
3) The ACFTU will continue in its union building activities in the private sector.
Also, Wang suggested four major areas for the world’s unions to work on:
1) Work hard to defend workers’ employment rights.
2) Mutually promote substantial, and dignified work.
3) Actively strengthen social coordination and cooperation. (In this category, tripartite collective consultation and collective bargaining is mentioned).
4) Increasing mutual understanding and respect.
So, one can draw a few initial impressions from Wang’s speech:
1) As of speeches of this type, it doesn’t stray far from official rhetoric.
2) The ACFTU’s main concern is in helping the government achieve and carry out its main policy goals.
3) Collective bargaining and worker rights’ protection will take a back seat to other more important priorities, namely, helping the government achieve its macro-economic goals and giving various forms of assistance to workers in need.
Certainly, given that the financial crisis has caused unprecedented chaos to China’s employment structure, and given that many of the government’s policies are fairy reasonable and well-intentioned, the ACFTU’s reaction isn’t entirely unreasonable, and certainly not surprising. But, as CLB argues in our most recent Chinese language research report on the ACFTU (soon to be out in English), the union has increasingly deferred what should be its core responsibilities - protecting workers rights - to the Party and the government, while simultaneously taking on a wide array of other important governance activities that should ideally be handled by other, more appropriate government agencies. The ACFTU continues to suffer from a misplaced identity, which keeps it from achieving its true potential, even under the current political structure.
An example of this can be seen in another new ACFTU program: “Operation to Aid Ten Million Migrant Workers”. Under this program, five million migrant workers would receive employment aid, while five million would receive aid in the areas of rights defense and living assistance. Also, the ACFTU has also set the target of signing up at least five million new migrant worker union members.
In announcing the plan, Sun Chunlan, vice-chairman of the ACFTU, also said that the union should be vigilant of “international and domestic hostile enemy forces (jingneiwai didui shili) using a few enterprises who have encountered difficulties to carry out infiltration and damage to migrant worker ranks”.
Unfortunately, it seems that the motivation behind the recent policy developments has more to do with assisting the government and fighting imaginary straw men than it does with real workers rights protection.