As China's economy moves away from top-down planning and domination by state-owned companies, complications over workplace safety and other labour rights will grow. Unions and labour groups can play an important mediating role in this area, and recent changes made at the All-China Federation of Trade Unions gathering in Beijing represent a step in the right direction. The changes include putting protection of workers' rights in the group's constitution and at the heart of its mission, opening up membership to the millions of migrant workers who leave the countryside each year to look for work in the cities and preparing the group for direct elections of union chairmen on a one-member, one-vote basis.
The ACFTU is a powerful group, claiming 134 million members nationwide, but its subsidiary unions have long been criticised for being too close to the government and the companies that employ their members. The challenges of a rapidly developing marketing economy - including layoffs at inefficient state-owned enterprises, labour abuses at privately owned companies and the need to protect migrant labourers - means that truly independent unions are needed now more than ever.
That may not happen overnight, but some groundwork is being laid. In addition to the recent changes, a national labour law was amended two years ago to clarify that labour unions are non-governmental organisations.
Even more has to be done to make sure that employees' rights are looked after as China moves from an economy based on agriculture and heavy industry to a more complex one where growth is driven by privately owned firms and light manufacturing for the international market. Workers' rights to adequate compensation, safe working conditions and proper training can be better assured if leaders and union organisers are receiving their wages from their union members rather than from the employers.
State statistics estimate that 5 million new workers come to the cities each year looking for work, and similar numbers are laid off by state-owned companies annually. The measure of the ACFTU's success should be in how well it protects the welfare of these most vulnerable members of the labour force. Changes made to the unions' mandate and structure should be made with this goal in mind. We have already witnessed demonstrations by laid-off factory workers who are not satisfied with the terms of their compensation. One way to defuse the dangers of more such discontent is to assure that unions represent the workers' interests and are equipped to advocate on their behalf.