Creating Political Space to Defend Chinese Workers

In 1989, Han Dongfang turned himself in to the Chinese government: He was wanted for "counter-revolutionary crimes." An electrician employed in a railway factory, Han attempted to organize China's first independent union from a tent he set up in Tiananmen Square during the democracy movement. Two years in prison and a near-fatal bout with tuberculosis (to which he was exposed by the Chinese government) only strengthened his commitment to democracy—and therefore independent unions—in China.

Today, Han is barred from the mainland, but as he works from Hong Kong, his voice travels throughout China. Through a Radio Free Asia talk show that Han created and hosts, Han broadcasts interviews with workers. Many of these conversations document the terrible conditions that Chinese workers must endure, but they also carry news of worker protests. Han also delivers his message through the China Labor Bulletin* an e-newsletter that documents workers' attempts to establish independent unions, educates workers on China's labor laws, and tracks labor disputes.

As workers have heard of each other's protests through Han's radio show and bulletin, they've gained confidence and protests have become more frequent. Han is now encouraging them to go one step further—to file lawsuits against their employers when those employers violate workers' rights. Starting an independent labor union is against the law, but filing a complaint against a factory—particularly a foreign-owned factory—isn't.

In Han's words, the Chinese government is "sitting on a fire." As he and other worker activists continue to inspire protests and lawsuits, they send Party officials a message that jailing protest organizers and ignoring the workers' plight will only make the fire grow stronger. Han believes that instead of fueling the fire, the Party will find it useful to settle lawsuits and respond to gross violations of workers' interests. In this fluid situation, these activists find new space in which Chinese workers can defend themselves.

During a recent visit to the United States, Han spoke to the Congressional Democracy Caucus, AFT's Human Rights Conference, and the Albert Shanker Institute's Board of Directors. The excerpts that follow are drawn from his remarks to these groups and from an interview with American Educator.


On Foreign Investment

It's very clear that foreign investment means job opportunities for Chinese workers. So I have no doubt that China needs more investment. But the question is, what kind of job opportunities will these investments create? Will the conditions be appropriate just for slaves—or for human beings? China is becoming the world's largest factory. It's the world's largest sweatshop. Girls and boys are working seven days a week, 14-15 hours a day. Very often their wages are just five cents ($0.05) per hour. Foreign investment is important to us, but the Chinese government is trying to base it on sacrificing workers' interests and lives.

On Corporate Codes of Conduct

There are organizations throughout the world that have pressed companies to adopt codes of conduct in which they commit their companies to providing reasonable working conditions. I've seen how this works. The company writes a responsibility code. It hires someone. They are called independent monitors. But no, they're not independent at all. They're hired by the company. The monitors can't publish a report on their own. Each monitor must negotiate with the company about the report he makes.

The monitors fly to China once a year, stay for three days in a nice hotel, and spend three hours in the factory interviewing people (while being monitored by the factory managers). They return to the company and issue a report saying that in this factory the workers' rights are respected. What gave them the authority to make that judgment? The workers didn't!

This has become popular PR for the companies, but it's not good for the trade union movement in China or around the world. These people think they have found a "third way" to protect workers' rights. They think it's their job to look after the workers. "You don't need a union anymore," they think. But behind this idea is the belief that workers' rights can be protected without freedom of association. That's a fundamental violation of workers' rights.

It's a question of whether we're talking about workers' rights as "human rights" or as "animal rights." If you are talking about "animal rights," that means the company only has to take care of the workers, give them better conditions, give them one less hour of work, not one more. Better treatment is, of course, better. But it shouldn't be misunderstood as "human rights." Chinese workers are human beings—just like American workers. What they need is a union, not someone who just flies in and treats them like hopeless, helpless people who are reliant on powerful people from other countries for just treatment.

On Growing Labor Activism

China is committed to a market economy. In a market economy, there is on the one hand, a free market with foreign investment and, on the other, independent unions. That creates a balance. But the Chinese Communist Party wants only the market, not the unions. It won't work. Chinese workers are being destroyed by the market that comes without the protection provided by unions. People won't keep taking it. Protests are growing.

There was a farmers' action recently in Yizhou, a city in the southwestern Guangxi Province. The mayor of the city, Deng Qing, is also the general manager of the biggest enterprise in the city—the sugar factory. The mayor used his political power to push the price of sugarcane very low. The farmers couldn't even survive. Twenty-five thousand sugarcane farmers marched on the city government building. They broke things, threw the computer out of the window. They said, "You said you were the people's government, but you are not. You are corrupt."

When things like this happen, the government has to respond. Either in the traditional way with the army or armed police, or they have to find another way out. My hopefulness is based on the idea that they will want to find another way out.

Chinese oilworkers are also beginning to react to oppression and unfair treatment with demonstrations. For example, this March, tens of thousands of oilfield workers in the northeast from Daqing, the nation's biggest oilfield, went to the street and protested for three months. It was triggered when 84,000 workers were laid off with very limited compensation. The workers were pushed to sign agreements saying that they had left the company on their own. They felt cheated. But the top managers received big bonuses.

Every day, these workers would go to the square in front of the company building. Many people were arrested. One by one, the leaders disappeared. After three months, when there were no leaders left, the protest slowly, slowly disappeared.

We told about these events on Radio Free Asia and through the China Labor Bulletin e-newsletter. This ability to communicate makes a huge difference. Three months after the northeast workers acted, oilfield workers in Chongqing—three thousand miles away in the southwest—stood up demanding the same things. But they learned from the northeast workers. They didn't limit themselves to a protest that would just lead to jailings. At the same time that they went into the street, they started collecting donations from the workers to support a lawsuit against the company. They argued in court that the company had laid them off in an illegal way.

There were also protests last spring in Liaoyang. Thirty thousand workers from more than 20 state-owned enterprises demanded their unpaid wages and complained about corruption among managers and officials. During the protests many of the leaders were arrested.

But in all, the signal is good, not bad. The protest leaders in Liaoyang have been in prison for over six months. But their families are not afraid; their fellow workers are not afraid. Even the lawyer who is working to defend them is not afraid.

On Lawsuits

People wonder how the law, which has long been used against Chinese workers, can now be an effective tool for them. China is a complicated place and we have to be creative and use all avenues as they open up.

Take, for example, the effect of decentralization, which has brought more power to local governments. Local government leaders now head up big enterprises. As we saw, the mayor can be the general manager of the sugar factory. The deputy mayor can be the private venture director. These people are not only politically powerful, as they have always been, they are now more economically powerful than ever before. But with all this power, they go too far. They're provoking people. It's not just the farmers. It's the oilworkers, mineworkers.

The government will find that it needs to find a peaceful way to resolve problems, to slowly release the pressure. That creates an opening for us. You can't know which part of the government might want to help the workers a little, which part will want to relieve the pressure a little, which will want to show that their part of the government is not corrupt.

It's why I say on my radio show: "Use the law." China has laws on paper that govern certain working conditions, but the laws are not enforced. Nobody can guarantee which individual case the workers can win, but if more people knock on the door, there is more chance that workers will win. Workers in factories making goods for foreign companies have the best chances. They can say, "Look, this American company is taking advantage of Chinese workers and breaking Chinese laws."

On China's Official Union

The official union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), has always tried to do what the Chinese Communist Party would want, without even waiting for the Party's order. According to Chinese law, there can only be one legitimate union. So ACFTU sets up unions in factories to make sure no independent workers get out on their own.

When western unions treat ACFTU as a legitimate union, they send a terribly wrong message to Chinese workers. It hurts the Chinese independent trade union movement. Now there's a big wave of Chinese workers who, after 20 years of being exploited, are standing up, rising up, going to the streets, protesting, and starting to fight back. At exactly this moment, Chinese workers need support. We need a solidarity message from unions around the world. This is especially true of the AFL-CIO, which is the biggest and most influential trade union in the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

Recently, a small group of representatives from several American unions visited with AFCTU leaders. The People's Daily and Worker's Daily newspapers [the official Chinese newspapers] used and manipulated this visit to make Chinese workers believe that there's no hope from the international trade union movement. It's really, really discouraging.

On Seeing the Future

I would say that China today is a big time bomb. A lot depends on this current government. Are they clever enough, intelligent enough to allow the pressure to slowly be released or not? We can do little to confront huge government power, like the army. So what we are trying to do is air problems and find openings that will allow ordinary people to join together to get the support of the law. Winning these kinds of battles, seeing the results of working together—this is the beginning of real worker groups in China.

Of course what I'm proposing is just one piece of a solution that leads to a better China. We are not looking for a complete solution to resolve all of China's problems at once. That's impossible. I am a labor activist. I'm trying make the voice of labor heard. Others are trying to build a voice for business, for intellectuals, for other groups.

Anyone who thinks that there's just one solution for China shouldn't work in China. There's a lot to do. But if you look up in whatever area you're in, you see the future. There is a great field for us to fight in, and the workers are rising up and the farmers are rising up, and the conflicts are there.

*For more information on the China Labor Bulletin, see (back to article)

The visit of these American unionists was repudiated by the AFL-CIO. In a letter to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, AFL-CIO International Affairs Director Barbara Shailor said that "the visit did not in any way represent" AFL-CIO policy and that Chinese workers' interest in unions of their own choosing "is not tolerated by ACFTU." (back to article)

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American Educator, Winter 2002