China's unions emboldened by
Wal-Mart success By Candy Zeng
SHENZHEN - Coming off its success in
establishing unions in outlets of militantly
non-union Wal-Mart, China's official All China
Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has been
emboldened to push for unionization in other
foreign-invested enterprises across the country.
At least 16 of Wal-Mart's 60
outlets across China have already been
organized, while the chain retailer promises to help all
others to establish local
unions. And the US-based retail super-giant is
planning to open 20 more mega-stores in China.
According to officials with the ACFTU,
only about 26% of the
enterprises across the country have so far
established trade unions, with a total membership
of 4.3 million. The federation has now set an
ambitious goal of boosting the ratio to 50% by the
end of this year.
The ice was broken with
the establishment of the first trade union in
Wal-Mart's Jinjiang outlet in Quanzhou in the
southeastern province of Fujian on July 29. The
inauguration ceremony took place at 7:30am with
none of the management attending. In contrast, the
inauguration of a trade union in a state-owned
enterprise would normally be a solemn affair,
attended by company executives and even senior
local party and government officials.
success was no accident. We began sending union
publications and newsletters to its staff since
the Wal-Mart outlet was established in November
2005, after holding fruitless talks with its
management," said Chen Xiongnan, vice director
with the general office of the Quanzhou Federation
of Trade Unions.
After repeated rebuffs,
Chen and his fellow union officials approached the
outlet's employees directly, sometimes in the
middle of the night. "It was as if we are working
underground," said Chen. So by July 21, some 30
Wal-Mart employees had handed in applications for
unionization to the local authority. But only 25
managed to attend a midnight meeting on July 28 to
elect a seven-member union committee, the minimum
requirement for such an election under China's
Wal-Mart is famously
anti-union. Not one of its US stores has a union.
It has been known to close stores rather than
accept unions. So the Jinjiang unionists
approached their mission with some trepidation. At
first they were concerned that they would be
reprimanded by the company. In addition, they were
not sure how to finance the union's activities.
Although China's labor law stipulates that an
employer must set aside 2% of its total payroll to
finance union activities, lack of contributions
has been a major obstacle at many non-unionized
But soon Wal-Mart's
Shenzhen and Nanjing outlets became unionized,
with the inauguration of their trade unions also
taking place at night, after business hours. To
sort out the financial problem, the official
Nanjing Federation of Trade Unions agreed to
subsidize the union with 20,000 yuan (US$2,500),
according to the China Youth Daily.
after the debut of Wal-Mart's Jinjiang union,
China's official media openly questioned whether
the company would punish its unionist employees.
Possibly under the pressure of such public
sentiment, Wal-Mart held high-level talks with
China's union authority on August 9 and agreed
that it would help establish trade unions at all
of its outlets across China.
"I hope to
establish good relations with the ACFTU and its
regional branches that would be conducive for our
employees and business development," said Joe
Hatfield, president of Wal-Mart Asia, adding - and
quoting the latest Communist Party line - "it is
in line with Chinese government's efforts to build
a harmonious society."
Trade unions in
China, it should be noted, are not the same as
those in the West. They are all controlled by the
Communist Party. "Trade unions are not simply
about workers' economic interests, they also have
to do with political, cultural and democratic
rights," said Guo Wencai, an ACFTU official in
charge of formation of grassroots unions.
Indeed, China's trade unions are known for
their tameness and obedience to the party. The
activities they organize for the workers are
usually no more than social events or
entertainment. They are often criticized as being
more like showcases of corporate culture than
organs to protect labor rights.
Be that as
it may, the government has been encouraging unions
to bring more foreign companies into the fold.
President Hu Jintao himself has urged the ACFTU to
strengthen its union network among multinational
companies. He wrote a directive to the group in
March to "do a better job of building [Communist]
Party organizations and trade unions in
now has more than 1.17 million grassroots trade
unions across the country. An ACFTU official
disclosed that in the first six months of this
year, about 9 million workers had joined unions,
and more than 80,000 new trade unions been set up.
The Chinese government intends to counter
increasing labor disputes with the help of trade
unions, according to analysts. For example, labor
disputes often occur in the booming Pearl River
Delta due to low pay and poor working conditions.
As a result, the region has suffered a labor
shortage in recent years.
However, it is
still in doubt whether Chinese trade unions could
serve that purpose. According to the survey by the
China's Youth Daily, 71.6% of the respondents
believed China's unions had not fully carried out
their tasks as set forth by labor officials such
An online survey by a popular
Chinese Internet portal showed that more than 82%
of respondents believed the unions failed to
safeguard labor rights, while only 1.5% thought
Candy Zeng is a
freelance write based in Shenzhen.