A victory for workers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2001, 12:00am

As China approaches entry into the World Trade Organisation, it is inevitable that direct foreign investment into the country inevitably will increase exponentially. One issue that has only recently begun to receive some long overdue attention is that of effective representation for the tens of millions of people working in manufacturing industries.

The only government-sanctioned union on the mainland is the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Until recently one of the central roles of the organisation was simply to help workers adapt to life after losing their jobs. But that has changed. Since a gradual decline of membership in the 1990s - it dropped from 130 million to around 90 million during the decade, according to unofficial union sources - the federation is re-examining its role and has launched a drive for new members.

The National People's Congress Standing Committee has also begun a welcome review of amendments to trade union law in order to strengthen labour protection in private and foreign-owned businesses.

New laws aim to target job safety and the relationship between workers and employers. The ACFTU will have the right to dispatch officials to assist and instruct workers on how to establish unions in private and foreign-owned companies. And union representatives will have the right to negotiate with employers on behalf of workers in disputes.

These are innovative approaches to labour rights on the mainland. And today we report on another initiative that appears to hold great promise for the future.

The essential elements driving the introduction of the first workers' representative group without formal links to the state, at the Reebok factory in Shenzhen, are the concerns of a company with an international brand for its reputation and the willingness of the ACFTU to allow a pilot project that may well act as a model for foreign-owned factories all over the mainland.

The Reebok factory scheme is still in its infancy and it seems is regarded by all concerned as something of an experiment. Whether the 28 union representatives prove to be an effective bridge between workers and management only time will tell. But despite certain ongoing complaints from some workers at the factory, all parties are making positive noises about the arrangement; and if it succeeds as it is hoped, it could offer the prospect of greatly improved working conditions to millions of other workers on the mainland.