China moves on rights at work

Chris White

'Labour disputes threaten stability' headlined the China Daily on 30 January 2007. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) warned that the draft amendments on Employment Contracts should be passed by the National People's Congress (NPC, China's Parliament) in May or June, otherwise the increasing number of labour disputes or radical actions by millions of workers posed a threat to China's social stability.

This was the morning I met Sun Wenbin, Director of the General Office Legal Department, and Yao Li from the International Department, of the ACFTU. Sun Wenbin began his report by emphasising the ACFTU's consultative role with the National People's Congress (NPC).

In 2005-06, public discussion had ensued on the draft Employment Contracts amendments. Such public debate is unprecedented, as usually it is behind closed doors.

The union encouraged submissions and over 190,000 came in, many from workers. Contributions also came from employers, academics, students, judges and labour lawyers, the Labour Ministry, the industrial relations community and NGOs.

Chinese employers strongly opposed the amendments, as did global corporations, US business and European lobby groups in China. But arguably, as we shall see, these general labour law amendments to strengthen employment contracts are modest protections for Chinese workers in a precarious market economy.

Such employer opposition is of major concern to the Australian labour movement. If it succeeds, Chinese low wages and conditions would not improve and further drive down Australia's already weak employee protections under WorkChoices.

As well as the ACFTU lobbying in China, the labour movement and NGO's worldwide are backing these protections for millions of Chinese workers.

In answering questions on Australia's labour laws, I advised there were no similar protections for Australian workers and that China ought not to follow the 2006 WorkChoices.

Indeed, the China strategy for balancing the rights and interests of workers and employers is better in the particular Chinese political economy context. I explained that with our Prime Minister Howard gaining Senate control, labour laws unfair to workers and favouring corporations could not be stopped.

"The China strategy for balancing the rights and interests of workers and employers is better in the particular Chinese political economy context."

What are the new labour laws about? Sun Wenbin and Professor Liu Chen from Shanghai University Law and Politics said the principles of the amendments are secure, but lobbying over the details continues.

In China's private capitalist market, millions of workers have problems with fragmentation, casualisation, wages and overtime not paid, no legal employment contracts (e.g. for rural workers flooding into the cities) and the increasing exploitation by unfair employer tactics.

China's labour relations system under Mao Zedong was run by the state with all wages and conditions governed by the Party in the work unit, together with housing, education and health and social security.

Since Deng Xiaoping's opening up to capitalism, employers in the private sector determine what happens at work. Labour law reform and general employment contracts introduced in 1995 and 2001 covering minimum wages, hours and OHS protections needed more detailed regulation of the industrial relations parties and the injustices of management practices.

For millions of workers, employers rule with management prerogative, hire and fire at will, ignore existing labour laws and engage in the 'race to the bottom' exploitative practices. This, it is widely recognised, has gone too far.

Liu Cheng said one problem is the short fixed contract with employers' tactics for shorter and shorter periods, with arbitrary dismissals. China has to have stronger labour law to prevent this trend so as to ensure employers pay salaries and benefits. There is to be a re-balancing for the worker's rights and improved 'workplace harmony' for the rights and interests of both parties.

The following are my summaries. I believe they are to go through the NPC in some form. The details are from a second reading draft of 20 December 2006 given to me, and are provisional.

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