China Power

China’s Reforms Leave Labor Unions Behind

Chinese leaders may be gearing up for reforms, but don’t expect China’s only legal labor union to be one of them.

When addressing the 16th national congress of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in Beijing on Monday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang spoke about deepening and accelerating economic reforms as well as enhancing efforts to protect workers' rights. Earlier, senior official Liu Yunshan previewed Li’s statement, saying that labor unions should play a greater role in protecting the working class.

But while economic hopes for reform in China are alive and well, trade unions, which for most countries are on the front lines of protecting workers' rights, show few signs of opening up. Regarding the ACFTU meeting in Beijing, Geoffrey Crothall, spokesperson for the China Labor Bulletin, told The Diplomat: "It's kind of what they say every time. I don't think there's anything new or noticeable in this latest conclave."

China's state-run media disagrees, hailing the meeting as a turning point in the country's labor relations—complete with out-of-the-blue ACFTU success stories and parades of ethnic minorities decked out in traditional attire, happy to represent the workers of the motherland. As Liu Yunshan said, "The working class should become the role model of unity and progress, and vigorously promote the glorious tradition of unity, cooperation, mutual assistance and friendship." As they piled into the Great Hall of the People late last week for photo ops, the glowering prospect of individual trade unions seemed no closer to becoming a reality.

The ACFTU is the largest union in the world, with Xinhua reporting over 280 million members; it's also one of the weakest in representing their members, existing primarily to serve the CCP, convey its messages and policies to the workers, and spread the "mass line." In fact, all other trade unions unaffiliated with the ACFTU are illegal. Crothall says, "At the factory of workplace level, most trade unions are basically controlled directly or indirectly by management and they don't really represent workers' interests."

That said, as the country's main and only legal labor union is government controlled, workers are stuck putting pressure directly on their employers—which often results in bad PR for the PRC.

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There is no chance that the ACFTU is going to taper off or that the government is ever going to allow individual, unaffiliated trade unions on the mainland, but if workers on the ground can get mobilized, there is a bit of hope that the workers will be able to take matters into their own hands. Crothall says, "Rather than looking at what is happening in Beijing, we look at what's happening on the factory floor, and there you can see some encouraging signs in terms of workers demanding better union representation.”

China's labor movement has its share heroes and martyrs but few successes. At the moment, the 16th national congress of the ACFTU is little more than lip service, but the ACFTU can conceivably act outside of its master's wishes. With China's insistence on at least 7 percent GDP growth and labor costs rising, the big picture of China's labor movement could change.