Trade unions are invisible and ineffective in four factories in Shenzhen that have previously been recognised by the government as leaders in protecting their workers’ rights, according to undercover investigations conducted by a group of local university students.
Pay rates below minimum wage, excessive working hours, insufficient safety protection and poor working conditions were discovered in four out of five factories targeted by the students. Union membership was low and many workers were unaware the trade unions existed.
Twelve students in the southern Chinese city posed as job-seekers during their summer break and took up employment in five different factories, three of which had received national awards for their trade unions. The students recorded their personal observations and conducted in-depth interviews with the workers.
In the Gaoxin Electronics factory, work days continued into the early hours of the morning during busy periods, and staff were paid less than the minimum wage. Workers could only take leave without pay and were fined 100 yuan (HK$126) each time. Supervision was harsh, toilet breaks limited and water and soldering dust were serious safety hazards.
On top of substandard conditions and remuneration, the students discovered minimal union participation. Workers were confused about the role of trade unions. Many did not know if they were members, several did not even know there was a union available to join, according to the students’ report.
At one factory, Baitai Jewellery, none of the 33 workers surveyed knew if they were a union member, only one knew what a trade union was. At Fuqun Electronics, 30 per cent of the workers knew there was a trade union, but less than five per cent knew if they were members. None of the five factories had democratic union elections.
“It’s pretty much what we would have expected. It’s been the standard situation for enterprise trade unions in China for a long time where they don’t really represent workers’ interests”, said Geoff Crothall, a long-term advocate of workers rights at NGO the China Labour Bulletin.
Watch: A report by DanWatch looking at labour conditions in China
In May last year, the Deputy Head of Shenzhen’s trade union federation said that direct elections would become increasingly common in Shenzhen’s factory unions, and singled out 163 enterprises to be targeted in the coming year.
More than a year later, there has been little progress. “The point of the students’ investigation is that the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions promised these elections and to improve the situation and it doesn’t seem that much has changed’, said Crothall.
Baitai Jewellery was one of 163 factories targeted. The students reported Baitai’s union did not have an office, telephone hotlines, mailbox, or even a bulletin board.
The situation at the Japanese-owned Epson electronics factory was better. All of the 25 workers surveyed at the Epson factory were aware of the trade union and 23 of them knew whether they were members or not.
The students sent an open letter to the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions along with a report documenting their findings. “The unions are not fulfilling their duty. There were series violations of labour law discovered in all five factories”, reads the letter.
The letter urged the federation’s chairman to settle the disputes in the four factories from their report, and to promote direct elections for all factory workers in Shenzhen.
The Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions did not respond to a request for comment.
Workers’ rights in the southern manufacturing belt have long caused unrest and are a sensitive issue for local governments. Several high-profile incidents in recent years have drawn international attention, such as a wave of strikes in a Honda factory in Foshan in 2010 and several suicides at Foxconn plants in the past three years.
The weibo accounts of all of the students involved have been deleted.