On May 29, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions said in a policy “opinion” that it would further expand protection of the legal rights of workers and intensify development of “harmonious labor relationships” in order that China’s workers could live with greater dignity, and that the stability of labor teams and of society could be promoted more effectively.
This should be the first time that the ACFTU has linked together social stability and the protection of the legal rights of workers and the dignity of workers. And it should also be the first time the ACFTU has defined the idea of letting workers live with dignity as an important work objective of trade unions at various levels. This is a sign that China’s labor organizations and their leaders have finally admitted openly something that has become basic common knowledge — workers cannot have dignity without the protection of their legal rights; and when workers are allowed no dignity, there can be no guarantee of social stability.
Just as the notice from the ACFTU pointed out, our country is in the midst of a historical period marked by economic and social transition and deep-seated social tensions. As state-owned enterprises undergo restructuring and private enterprises develop, a number of local governments are adopting labor policies that sacrifice the rights of workers for the sake of investment returns, so that the legal rights of workers have been shoved aside.
In the name of reform, those at the helm of many enterprises have used rent-seeking to appropriate assets that belong rightfully to the state or to collective interests. In the process of restructuring, they have treated workers with long careers at these enterprises as unemployed workers not entitled to support. And in many cases, the private enterprises that have risen from the ashes of these restructured state enterprises are “sweatshops” where workers have few rights at all.
In some factories, workers slave away under terrible conditions, doing exhausting work for little return. Labor in such places has become little more than a means of maintaining a spartan life that sustains nothing beyond continued production. On the production line, workers have become robots without minds or dignity.
In order to fight for lives of dignity, workers in China must resort to all sorts of means to protect their own legal rights and interests. In the eyes of many local government officials, these rights defense actions are “mass incidents” that upset social stability. They will employ any and all necessary means to strike down these rights defense actions and carry out [what the leadership calls] “stability preservation,” or weiwen (维稳). These are clearly ill-conceived and erroneous policies, but they have for some time been the conditioned response by local governments under the notion of “stability preservation by means of pressure,” or yali weiwen (压力维稳). In order to correct these errors, the ACFTU pointed out clearly in its recent notice that “rights protection is the root and precondition of stability preservation.”
Nevertheless, there remains the question of how we can protect the rights of workers? There are a lot of issues concerned here, but one thing in particular is most important, and that is how to allow workers to systematically voice their own interests? This is a highly sensitive issue in Chinese society at the moment. As a practical matter, how to control the organizational resources of society has long been seen [by government leaders] as a critical priority. In my view, the organization of various interests is a double-edged sword as far as social stability is concerned. It can, on the one hand, mobilize strength against the system, but it can serve at the same time as a cornerstone of social stability. For China at the present time, allowing workers to form their own interest groups is a question of their basic rights, and it would benefit the development of long-term social stability.
On this issue, the world-renowned political scientist Samuel P. Huntington has argued in his book Political Order in Changing Societies that the most basic reason for worker’s strikes and social conflict in early industrial societies has been the unwillingness of those in power to acknowledge the right of labor to organize or the legal existence of trade unions. These rights were established as ideas only through the social struggles of the 19th century. The more determined a government is in refusing the legitimacy of labor organizations, the more radical labor unions become.
Unions are regarded by those in power as direct challenges to the existing order, and this mindset tends to encourage unions to openly challenge the existing order. In the 20th century, however, the organization of labor was generally seen as an inherent character of industrialized society. All advanced countries had well-organized and large-scale labor movements. Less advanced countries sought to imitate these organizations, and having a national federation of labor unions became a mark of national dignity, as indispensable as having an army, a national airline or a foreign affairs office.
The organization of labor interests might constitute a serious challenge to existing organizational structures for labor in China. But we should not be fearful of this challenge. Rather, we should actively face up to the new situation we now see emerging. In fact, the ACFTU has already clearly recognized this problem, and has proposed, among other things, making changes to the ways unions can be formed, and defining the actualization of workers’ right to know, right to participate, right to express and right to monitor — rights mentioned by President Hu Jintao in his political report to the 17th National Party Congress in 2007 — as the basic task of trade unions.
Of course, to really accomplish this, labor organizations in China must undergo much deeper reforms — ensuring, for example, that the advancement, salaries and benefits of union leaders are outside the control of company bosses — and be subject to legal protections allowing them to become organizations that truly belong to the workers and have their interests at heart. Only in this way can unions truly stand with workers when their rights are infringed. Only then will it be possible to achieve a “win-win situation for both workers and enterprises.” And only then will workers be empowered to live with dignity.