Union congress opens amid calls for more power
5-yearly national meeting held as labour relations grow more tense
The world's largest trade union opened its five-yearly national congress yesterday, with critics calling on it to play a bigger role and act tougher as labour relations become more tense and conditions for workers deteriorate.
Delegates representing the 209 million members of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) convened yesterday for its 15th national meeting in Beijing, Xinhua reported. The meeting runs until Tuesday.
For the first time, among the 2,118 delegates are 47 migrant workers - representing the tens of millions of rural dwellers who have quit the land to work in city factories.
'Migrant workers, who have made a major contribution to China's economic boom, are still seriously under-represented in the ACFTU, and their legitimate rights can easily be overlooked and sometimes breached,' said Dong Baohua , a professor at the East China University of Political Science and Law and an expert on labour law.
'The fact that it's the first time for the trade union's national congress to have migrant-worker delegates speaks volumes,' he said.
Many migrant workers are treated badly, especially in the manufacturing and construction industries, where they are not only poorly paid, but far too often are denied their pay altogether when their employers claim to have gone bankrupt.
In the latest such incident, Hong Kong toy maker Smart Union Group shut down its three factories in Dongguan and Qingyuan in Guangdong on Wednesday, allegedly without proper notice, owing more than 6,000 workers six weeks' wages.
The ACFTU and its local chapters needed to press harder for more regulation of such companies and resolve cases of failure to pay outstanding wages, Professor Dong said.
Only 67 million - or less than one-third of the massive army of migrant workers, which numbers around 210 million - have joined the trade union, according to the latest statistics from the ACFTU.
At the same time, the number of labour disputes has been rising by 20 per cent a year in recent years. Last year, nearly 410,000 cases were registered, according to the ACFTU. Critics said the real figure could be considerably higher.
Since the Labour Contract Law - which in principle gives workers more protection - took effect on January 1, monitoring its implementation has been an onerous task for trade unions at all levels.
'The ACFTU needs to substantiate its efforts in fighting for workers' rights,' said Mao Shoulong , a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing.
For a long while, the organisation has struggled to change the perception that its engagements with workers were largely confined to the peripheral, such as organising travel trips or karaoke competitions.
Recently, it has appeared more interested in trying to smooth relations between the government and foreign-invested enterprises than safeguarding workers' rights.
The Communist Party controls the federation and independent trade unions are not permitted.
President Hu Jintao attended the opening yesterday along with the eight other members of the Politburo Standing Committee - the ultra-powerful inner circle. Vice-President Xi Jinping urged unions to protect the interests of employees, co-ordinate labour relations, and give workers better technical and vocational training.
He also called on them to promote dialogue and co-operation with union organisations in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan 'to maintain prosperity and stability' and 'promote peace and co-operation'.