BEIJING'S propaganda machine has kicked into high gear to publicise the new National Labour Law. Copies of the law are being distributed in the workplace, hotlines have been established in Beijing and Shanghai, television programmes extol the new law and numerous editorials have appeared. But experts claim that while the Labour Law is a positive step, it will be some time before results will be seen and workers are already questioning the law's effectiveness. The Government clearly recognises the need to allow inefficient enterprises to go bankrupt, but has grave concerns about the possible social repercussions. The new law, which came into effect on January 1, gives workers fairly substantial protection. China's most renowned labour activist Han Dongfang said 'the new law is a step in the right direction and has good points', but pointed out that it still did not allow workers to strike. The law itself is modelled on the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and covers promotions, labour contracts, working hours, protection for female and juvenile workers, wages, social insurance and welfare and labour disputes among other issues. However, the law fails to mention collective bargaining, the most common way to settle labour dispute in other countries. According to the Director of the ILO in China, Jean-Victor Gruat, 'the Chinese Labour Law covers the basic provisions found in any decent labour law. 'However, it will take three to five years before the sufficient supplementary regulations necessary for proper implementation are ready.' Despite the authorities' efforts to publicise the law, workers in Beijing remain somewhat sceptical about its effectiveness. 'The law is practical and looks good on paper, but what's important is how it's put into practice. 'The law seems to protects workers, but if a state-owned company goes bankrupt, who's to say what will really happen? ' said the manager of a Beijing department store who requested anonymity. On the newly established hotlines, callers asked questions about rights and obligations, ranging holiday pay to compensation for redundancy. One pregnant caller wanted to know if she would be fired automatically as a result of her condition. Most notable changes under the new law include a worker's right to choose their job, the development of social insurance, mandatory vocational training, a notice period for sacking and the settlement of disputes through arbitration. 'Many of these ideas are very new to us, we don't know exactly what they mean,' said a Beijing factory worker. Mr Gruat points out that at this stage, reality does not yet correspond to the law, particularly in the areas of freedom to choose work and a set minimum wage. Recently, the Government has made a push to establish minimum wages throughout the country, but many provinces and cities failed to meet the January 1 deadline. In Beijing, the minimum wage is 210 yuan (HK$193) per month. A major area of concern is enforcement at local level. While the efforts of the All China Federation of Trade Unions and the Ministry of Labour are very strong in Beijing, their ability to ensure local unions and labour bureaus comply with the new law is limited. 'Decision-making power is highly centralised and doesn't reach the local levels. There's no chain of command between the Ministry of Labour and local labour auth orities,' said Mr Gruat. This means rural and township enterprises as well as smaller joint-ventures are likely to escape compliance for some time. Mr Gruat points out that this is a pity as conditions in rural and township enterprises and some of the smaller joint ventures are among the worst in China. The large state enterprises and major foreign companies operating in China are not problem areas. Over the course of the next few years Chinese authorities will have to make difficult choices between enterprise efficiency and social stability. Growing income disparities between urban and rural workers could also prompt unrest.