Strikes expose fatally flawed union system
'Every month we pay five yuan out of our pockets to the union, but I don't know what for,' fumed a worker at the Honda Auto Parts factory in Foshan, Guangdong, where workers went on strike last month.
Workers at the factory, which employs about 1,900 people, downed tools to demand a pay rise. Things turned sour when representatives of the local branch of the official Communist Party-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) stepped in to mediate but ended up scuffling with workers. Some workers said union staff had beaten them.
'That was bizarre,' said the worker, referring to the incident. 'I don't know who those people were and I don't know what they do.'
About 70 kilometres away, an employee at a factory that makes locks for Honda cars echoed similar frustrations. Workers at Honda Lock in Zhongshan went on strike for a week and agreed to go back to work on Saturday only after representatives they themselves elected negotiated a pay deal with management.
'The trade union? It's useless. They never speak on our behalf,' said a 25-year-old worker at the factory, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. He pointed out the fact that the factory's trade union chairman is also the factory's deputy manager and other 'union representatives' are also senior managers - making it no surprise that they would side with the management.
When asked what role the local Zhongshan union had played in the dispute, an official there said it had made 'timely responses to understand the incident' but referred the reporter to the city government propaganda office for further queries.
Independent trade unions are banned on the mainland; all trade unions are part of the ACFTU, which sees itself more as a mediator between workers and employers than a body that genuinely fights for workers' interests.
So that raises the question the workers asked: what role do the official trade unions - the only legal type - play and who do they really serve?
The ACFTU website says its pre-eminent role is to 'unite with and mobilise the broad masses of workers to strive for the realisation of the country's socialist modernisation'.
Professor Lin Yanling of the China Institute of Industrial Relations said the trade unions' priority - since they are government run - is not the workers' welfare. 'The law has given them the responsibility of protecting the interests of the workers, but in reality trade unions are entrusted by the party and the government to maintain social stability,' she said. 'So this matters more to them.'
Trade union staff are civil servants on the government payroll, and even union representatives in private companies - such as Honda Lock in Zhongshan - tend to be senior company executives. So as long as the mainland's unions remain accountable to the government rather than the workers, they will never perform the role played by trade unions in the West.
'Union officers are not elected by the workers themselves; that's why they are not acting responsibly on behalf of the workers,' said Dr Chang Kai , director of the Institute of Labour Relations at Renmin University.
Zhang Lifan, a former historian with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Communist Party would not tolerate an independent trade union because it 'wants to keep its monopoly on power' and feared its authority was being challenged. 'They are afraid of a situation like Poland's Solidarity, so they are very much on the alert.'
Solidarity led a political rights movement in Poland in the 1980s and won the first semi-free elections in the Soviet bloc in 1989. Co-founder Lech Walesa was its chairman from 1980 to 1990, when he was elected the nation's president until 1995. The victory by Solidarity heralded the collapse of communism in Europe.
Still, the spate of walkouts at foreign car factories has thrust the plight of Chinese workers into the spotlight. Labour rights activists are hoping this will help bring changes.
'I think the strikes have brought the role of enterprise unions into very sharp focus,' said Geoffrey Crothall of the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based workers' rights group. 'It is clear that they do not represent the workers. The workers do not trust the union and in many cases don't even know who their union representative is.'
But in an interesting development, the Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions is proposing, as a pilot scheme, to allow Honda workers in Foshan to elect their own union leaders who will be subject to an annual review, according to the Beijing-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao.
'The move ... is a positive development,' Crothall said, 'but it remains to be seen if the higher levels of the ACFTU will be willing to take what for them will be a giant leap and actually trust and encourage workers to manage their own affairs.'