Interview with Robin Munro of The China Labor Bulletin

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Interview with Robin Munro, Research Director of the China Labor Bulletin

Background to Labor Rights in China:

Worker exploitation exists on many levels in China because laborers cannot fully exercise their right to freedom of association. Labor rights violations have been well documented by groups promoting labor rights standards, such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). Basic labor rights, such as the right to organize, to bargain collectively, to be paid the legal minimum wage, and to receive benefits, are frequently violated. Many accuse the Chinese government of looking the other way while companies have abused their employees.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has a legal monopoly on labor organizations. The ACFTU is an integral part of the state and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and most of its full time representatives have not come from workers' ranks but rather rose through the CCP and were assigned to the ACFTU. The ACFTU has traditionally taken a top-down, bureaucratic, and reactive approach to workplace issues, more aimed at workforce control than at worker representation. Its monopoly is a gross violation of the basic human right of freedom of association. Attempts by workers to form unions independent of the ACFTU (so-called "underground unions") have until now been met with harsh repression.

Currently, workers have little protection under the law to redress labor rights violations. Laborer groups are often imprisoned under the charge of "subverting state power" or "endangering state security" for organizing events or supporting protests related to independent unions. Trials for these labor activists in China are greatly flawed: authorities rarely use proper procedures and trials usually have preset conclusions.

Groups that document labor rights violations have also faced hardship. Some worker rights NGOs are based in Hong Kong, where rule of law is more of a reality than in mainland China. Abused laborers on the mainland who interact with these NGOs may risk punishment for doing so.

We would like to thank Robin Munro, Research Director of the China Labor Bulletin, who agreed to be interviewed for this feature. Han Dongfang is the Director of the China Labor Bulletin and a member of the World Movement for Democracy .

The China Labor Bulletin (CLB):

The China Labor Bulletin has been developing several new approaches over the past couple of years to the problem of how best to assist Chinese workers to assert and claim their rights. Previously, we only monitored and reported on Chinese workers' struggles (whether it was a factory strike, a collective protest in front of the local government office, or something else), mainly through our Web site and e-bulletins.

The Challenge:

The main problem we have always faced, in trying to become more actively involved, is that any form of independent (so-called "underground") union organizing activities are strictly prohibited by law in China, and workers who try to set up such organizations are almost always arrested and heavily sentenced. Given Han Dongfang's background as a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen protest movement, our fear was that if CLB got directly involved in workers disputes and protest cases in China, it might bring even more police attention and trouble to the workers themselves.

The Evolving Strategy:

About 18 months ago, however, we decided that a more proactive strategy was called for, and that the current political climate in China was steadily creating more space for civil society-type activities, and since then we've been getting actively involved in some of these cases ourselves. (We call this our Case Intervention Program.) To begin with, we took on relatively uncontroversial issues and cases, for example industrial injury compensation cases, in which we found local Chinese lawyers willing to help the claimants get their compensation; and wage dispute cases, on which we help by finding lawyers to pursue these cases through either local Labour Dispute Arbitration Committees or the courts.

Case Interventions:

From the start of this year, we've taken a step further by taking on criminal defense cases for workers who have been arrested and charged for leading worker protests of various kinds. In two major cases we've been involved in this way; we found top criminal defense lawyers from Beijing who were willing to accept the defense brief from CLB directly, and moreover, in both cases the results have been very encouraging. In the first case -- of workers arrested and tried in Suizhou city, Hubei Province -- the defendants were either freed or sentenced very lightly as a result of our lawyer's work, and we persuaded the workers to take out a collective lawsuit of their own against the company. In the second case -- that of nine detained workers from the Taiwanese Stella shoe factory -- we've succeeded in making the court trials a milestone event in Chinese labor history, since the lawyers ended up effectively putting the Stella company in the dock, rather than the detained workers, on account of the company's abusive employment practices.

Our most recent case intervention was an attempt to push the envelope still further: in Xianyang city, near Xi'an in central China, 6,800 textile factory workers went on strike for almost seven weeks from September to early November 2004. They were protesting against attempts by the factory's new owner, a Hong Kong conglomerate, to terminate all their previous contracts and then rehire them at much reduced wage levels and on very short-term contracts. This was probably the longest lasting industrial strike in China for the past 20 years or more, and from previous such cases we feared it was almost inevitable that the police would start arresting the workers' leaders sooner or later. After CLB made contact with some of them, Han Dongfang began encouraging them to set up, through factory-wide elections, their own trade union, and then to register it formally with the official government-run trade union body (the ACFTU - All-China Federation of Trades Unions). This is technically allowed for and protected under the PRC Trade Union Law, but it has almost never actually been used by Chinese workers themselves.

The Outlook:

Our strategy in cases like the Xianyang textile workers' strike is that by setting up their own union in full accordance with the specified legal procedure, the workers will be securing for themselves the protection of Chinese law. Once the union is duly constituted through democratic elections by the workers the strike action leaders will be able to declare themselves openly as elected trade union officials, and the police will then be unable (or at least will find it very difficult) to arrest or otherwise harass them. Unfortunately, the police in Xianyang cracked down before the union had been created, and more than twenty worker activists were arrested; we don't know their fate as yet. Nonetheless, CLB is convinced that persisting in this effort to actually organize Chinese workers to form their own trade unions, as permitted under the Trade Union Law, represents a crucial next step forward in our mainland work, and we've been encouraged by a recent local law passed by the Guangdong government that specifically permits ten or more workers in any factory to elect and register their own union branch. We will be applying this model in future cases of worker protest elsewhere in China as well. It is our best "work-around" solution thus far to the problem of how to organize workers in the generally very hostile political environment of China.

Contact Information:

The China Labor Bulletin's Web site is http://www.china-labour.org.hk/iso. It contains research reports, campaign information, and alerts.