THEY are written in the law and repeatedly emphasised by top leaders, but still little has been done to protect the rights of workers in China - especially those in foreign-run enterprises. Although labour abuses are a nationwide issue, the problem has been most conspicuous in the quasi-capitalist Guangdong province. According to a report from the semi-official China News Service yesterday, less than 26 per cent of the more than 21,000 foreign-invested companies have set up unions. Unions do not necessarily lead to better protection, but some believe their absence makes workers more vulnerable to abuses. This view was partly supported by a survey conducted by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions' Guangdong branch, which concluded that abuses occurred more frequently in foreign firms without unions. Of the 1,500 workers polled, 18.9 per cent said they had been beaten and suffered other forms of physical abuse, while 17.6 per cent said their employers had conducted body-searches. 'And almost eight or nine out of 10 workers have to work without safety protection facilities or have been forced to work overtime or even work without pay,' a report based on the survey said. The report, carried by the Guangming Daily yesterday, blamed a general lack of concern among grassroots government and party leaders, whom it said cared more about foreign investment than workers' welfare. 'Some leaders believe that in state-owned enterprises, labour unions only play a marginal role. The position of labour unions in foreign enterprises was even less important,' it said. 'Some of these leaders even told the abused workers to pack up and go home, and the employers can always hire someone else.' The dominance of foreign investment in Guangdong partly explains why local officials have been so reluctant to enforce labour protection laws. According to statistics from the Guangdong Government, foreign firms last year invested US$2 billion (HK$15.46 billion) in about 8,000 township enterprises, and were responsible for 26 per cent of exports - worth US$4.6 billion - from the 28,000 township enterprises in the province. While the report admitted that cadres' poor support was one reason behind labour unions' unpopularity in foreign enterprises, another factor was workers' lack of awareness. It said since most workers came from other provinces or faraway villages in the mountains, few knew how to protect themselves. When the union's Guangdong branch sent a research team to a foreign enterprise in Dongguan, 80 per cent of the workers said they would seek help from their clansmen instead of the unions if their employers treated them badly. The report also said most of the existing unions were ineffective because of a lack of resources and leadership. It said as many as 30 per cent of those unions were 'dead' - offering little assistance.