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Unions triumphant at Wal-Mart in China

International Herald Tribune | October 12, 2006
By David Lague

BEIJING Wal-Mart workers in China have set up unions at all 62 outlets that the world's biggest retailer operates here in what a senior Chinese trade union official described Thursday as a breakthrough for organized labor.

After overcoming stiff resistance from Wal-Mart, which has long fought to bar unions from its stores and distribution centers, the official All China Federation of Trade Unions now plans to focus on other companies in China it accuses of being traditionally hostile to unions, including Foxconn Electronics, Eastman Kodak and Dell.

Guo Wencai, a senior ACFTU organizer, told a press conference in Beijing that the success in unionizing Wal-Mart stores would be a springboard to similar campaigns aimed at these companies and others in China.

"We are going to exert very high pressure on all these types of companies until unions are established there," Guo said.

"It is an irreversible trend."

Guo said that the authorities would concentrate on high-profile foreign companies in densely populated areas. Companies that had a history of opposing unions would also be a top priority.

In the Tianjin Development Zone, trade union branches are now established at more than 300 foreign companies, including the Swiss food giant Nestlé and the U.S. technology company General Semiconductor, Guo said.

In Beijing, employees from 44 foreign enterprises have formed trade unions.

"The situation is unprecedented, " Guo said.

The ACFTU, with strong backing from the Chinese government, has directed an intense operation against Wal-Mart as the first phase of a wider effort to establish branches in all foreign-funded enterprises.

There are now more than 100,000 foreign companies operating in China, including businesses from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao, according to government statistics quoted in the official media.

This drive to unionize workers in foreign companies is strictly limited to expanding the membership of the state-sanctioned ACFTU.

Under Chinese law, workers are barred from organizing independent unions and workers or activists seeking to challenge these rules are routinely persecuted and jailed, according to human rights groups.

Senior Chinese officials have explained that workers in foreign companies needed the protection of the official union, which already boasts 150 million members.

However, it is unlikely that branches of the official union will lead to worker militancy in foreign companies.

Labor activists at times have accused the ACFTU of siding with management rather than acting as a champion of workers' rights.

At best, they say the official union attempts to mediate in disputes.

Labor market analysts and human rights groups say that the Chinese authorities want to establish union branches in foreign companies in an effort to tighten control over the work force in the rapidly expanding private sector.

Labor unrest is now common in China, particularly among the 150 million-strong army of migrant workers, and some experts suggest that an improved network of unions could assist the authorities in defusing protests that could potentially pose a threat to Communist Party rule.

"They are afraid that public protests or strikes might get out of hand," said Robin Munro, the Hong Kong-based research director of the China Labor Bulletin, a workers rights group.

"Hence the big drive to impose unions and provide greater union coverage. I think this is seen as a way of crisis management."

Other political analysts have suggested that the Chinese authorities also want to expand the reach of the official union. That is because the decline of the state-owned sector has stripped away much of the Communist Party's traditional power base in the Chinese economy, they say.

In keeping with its efforts to bar organized labor from its work force in the United States and elsewhere, Wal-Mart resisted official efforts to unionize its workers until late July, when employees at one of its stores in Fujian Province set up a union branch.

Within two months, union branches were soon established in other stores as ACFTU officials and local governments encouraged workers to organize.

"It is a major breakthrough for Chinese trade unions in terms of organizing members," Guo said.

"This shows that the employees of Wal-Mart in China have a very strong awareness of their democratic and political rights as well as their rights under the law."

Guo said that about 6,000 of Wal- Mart's 30,000 employees in China were now union members and that efforts were already underway to improve their welfare.

He said the union would help workers bargain with Wal-Mart management for new collective contracts and that it would work to improve conditions for part-time staff.

China has been attempting to unionize workers in foreign companies for more than three years, as foreign businesses have increased their role in the Chinese economy and become major employers.

However, reports in the official media suggested that efforts were intensified this year after President Hu Jintao in March issued instructions to accelerate the establishment of communist party organizations and trade unions in foreign companies.

The official union later set a target for 60 percent of foreign-funded enterprises to be unionized by 2006 and 80 percent or more by the end of 2007, according to an Aug. 15 report in the Beijing News newspaper.

Guo said Thursday that according to current indications, the target for 2006 would be met.


BEIJING Wal-Mart workers in China have set up unions at all 62 outlets that the world's biggest retailer operates here in what a senior Chinese trade union official described Thursday as a breakthrough for organized labor.

After overcoming stiff resistance from Wal-Mart, which has long fought to bar unions from its stores and distribution centers, the official All China Federation of Trade Unions now plans to focus on other companies in China it accuses of being traditionally hostile to unions, including Foxconn Electronics, Eastman Kodak and Dell.

Guo Wencai, a senior ACFTU organizer, told a press conference in Beijing that the success in unionizing Wal-Mart stores would be a springboard to similar campaigns aimed at these companies and others in China.

"We are going to exert very high pressure on all these types of companies until unions are established there," Guo said.

"It is an irreversible trend."

Guo said that the authorities would concentrate on high-profile foreign companies in densely populated areas. Companies that had a history of opposing unions would also be a top priority.

In the Tianjin Development Zone, trade union branches are now established at more than 300 foreign companies, including the Swiss food giant Nestlé and the U.S. technology company General Semiconductor, Guo said.

In Beijing, employees from 44 foreign enterprises have formed trade unions.

"The situation is unprecedented, " Guo said.

The ACFTU, with strong backing from the Chinese government, has directed an intense operation against Wal-Mart as the first phase of a wider effort to establish branches in all foreign-funded enterprises.

There are now more than 100,000 foreign companies operating in China, including businesses from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao, according to government statistics quoted in the official media.

This drive to unionize workers in foreign companies is strictly limited to expanding the membership of the state-sanctioned ACFTU.

Under Chinese law, workers are barred from organizing independent unions and workers or activists seeking to challenge these rules are routinely persecuted and jailed, according to human rights groups.

Senior Chinese officials have explained that workers in foreign companies needed the protection of the official union, which already boasts 150 million members.

However, it is unlikely that branches of the official union will lead to worker militancy in foreign companies.

Labor activists at times have accused the ACFTU of siding with management rather than acting as a champion of workers' rights.

At best, they say the official union attempts to mediate in disputes.

Labor market analysts and human rights groups say that the Chinese authorities want to establish union branches in foreign companies in an effort to tighten control over the work force in the rapidly expanding private sector.

Labor unrest is now common in China, particularly among the 150 million-strong army of migrant workers, and some experts suggest that an improved network of unions could assist the authorities in defusing protests that could potentially pose a threat to Communist Party rule.

"They are afraid that public protests or strikes might get out of hand," said Robin Munro, the Hong Kong-based research director of the China Labor Bulletin, a workers rights group.

"Hence the big drive to impose unions and provide greater union coverage. I think this is seen as a way of crisis management."

Other political analysts have suggested that the Chinese authorities also want to expand the reach of the official union. That is because the decline of the state-owned sector has stripped away much of the Communist Party's traditional power base in the Chinese economy, they say.

In keeping with its efforts to bar organized labor from its work force in the United States and elsewhere, Wal-Mart resisted official efforts to unionize its workers until late July, when employees at one of its stores in Fujian Province set up a union branch.

Within two months, union branches were soon established in other stores as ACFTU officials and local governments encouraged workers to organize.

"It is a major breakthrough for Chinese trade unions in terms of organizing members," Guo said.

"This shows that the employees of Wal-Mart in China have a very strong awareness of their democratic and political rights as well as their rights under the law."

Guo said that about 6,000 of Wal- Mart's 30,000 employees in China were now union members and that efforts were already underway to improve their welfare.

He said the union would help workers bargain with Wal-Mart management for new collective contracts and that it would work to improve conditions for part-time staff.

China has been attempting to unionize workers in foreign companies for more than three years, as foreign businesses have increased their role in the Chinese economy and become major employers.

However, reports in the official media suggested that efforts were intensified this year after President Hu Jintao in March issued instructions to accelerate the establishment of communist party organizations and trade unions in foreign companies.

The official union later set a target for 60 percent of foreign-funded enterprises to be unionized by 2006 and 80 percent or more by the end of 2007, according to an Aug. 15 report in the Beijing News newspaper.

Guo said Thursday that according to current indications, the target for 2006 would be met.

 

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