International union sets up chinese links

By John Vandaele (IPS)

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has decided controversially to start a dialogue with the official All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The move comes shortly before the World Social Forum meetings where the role played by unions will be discussed at length within the context of strengthening civil society.

ACFTU is the largest national trade union in the world. ITUC with 167 million members in 153 countries is by far the biggest international trade union organisation.

ITUC had earlier refused contacts because it did not consider ACFTU, which has links with the Communist Party of China, an independent trade union. Now the growing importance of China in the world economy has convinced ITUC it should try to establish forms of cooperation.

The Brussels-based ITUC decided Dec. 14 to give its secretary-general Guy Ryder the mandate to start a dialogue with ACFTU. These talks could open the way for labour issues in Chinese companies to be given greater international attention.

ACTFU, the only trade union allowed in China, has long been held in contempt by western unions and international trade union organisations because of its ruling party affiliations. This rejection is now softening up, though not all ITUC members are enthusiastic about the decision to start a dialogue.

The Polish union Solidarnosc, the Dutch FNV and trade unions in Hong Kong have opposed the move. The U.S. federation AFL-CIO opposed the move first, but finally let the text pass at ITUC’s December convention.

The majority of ITUC members support the new dialogue, given the process of globalisation and the role that China plays in it. ITUC is not represented in China and thus has no influence in a rapidly growing part of the world economy.

“By starting a dialogue with the Chinese trade union, ITUC wants to have more influence on the ground in China,” Ryder said in a statement. “It should enable us also to discuss the role of China in the world.”

They argue also that ACFTU does play a positive role in the field. ACFTU has had to adapt to the changing socio-economic environment in China, with private companies increasingly calling the shots, and millions of internal migrants living in precarious conditions.

As the Chinese government calls for a harmonious society with more equity between workers and company owners, the Chinese trade union federation, or parts of it, have felt encouraged to defend workers’ rights more aggressively.

ITUC sees new labour laws positively. “The laws are a step in the right direction, so we do see them as a positive development,” says Ryder. “Nevertheless there is still a long way to go in terms of China’s labour laws, and also the issues of labour inspection and enforcement.”

Recently, the Chinese telecommunications multinational Huawei wanted to fire 7,000 employees in order to give them new contracts that would have deprived them of 10 years seniority. Under new labour laws introduced last year, Chinese workers with 10-year seniority are entitled to new benefits. ACFTU stepped in, and the dismissals were revoked.

Some see this as illustrating the political connections of ACFTU. Others point to the benefits won for the workers. But whatever develops within China, any cooperation between ITUC and ACFTU could change relations between work and capital in the country where they could be the biggest issue.

“Our objective is not specifically to find out how the ACFTU operates,” said Ryder. “In terms of the impact of the ACFTU, it is variable — it is of course important to recognise that Chinese laws impose clear restrictions on trade union activities, which means that performance is differentiated according to what is possible.”

Ryder says ITUC would like to start the dialogue “as soon as possible, but there is no definite date as yet.” Asked whether there are certain conditions to be met, Ryder said that “once the dialogue begins, we will be discussing the parameters, the objectives and the commitments.”


1 Response to “International union sets up chinese links”

  1. 1 Communicating Labour Rights « Entdinglichung Trackback on January 30, 2008 at 9:39 am

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