a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law does not provide for freedom of association, and workers are not free to organize or join unions of their own choosing. The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is the only union recognized under the law. Independent unions are illegal, and the law does not protect the right to strike. The law allows for collective wage bargaining for workers in all types of enterprises. The law further provides for industrial sector-wide or regional collective contracts, and enterprise-level collective contracts were generally compulsory throughout the country. Regulations require the government-controlled union to gather input from workers prior to consultation with management and to submit collective contracts to workers or their congress for approval. There is no legal obligation for employers to negotiate or to bargain in good faith, and some employers refused to do so.
The law provides for legal protections against discrimination against the officially sanctioned union and specifies union representatives may not be transferred or terminated by enterprise management during their term of office. The law provides for the reinstatement of workers dismissed for official union activity as well as for other penalties for enterprises that engage in antiunion activities. The law does not protect workers who request or take part in collective negotiations with their employers independent of the officially recognized union. In several cases reported during the year, workers attempting to do so faced reprisals including forced resignation, firing, and detention.
All union activity must be approved by and organized under the ACFTU, a CCP organ chaired by a member of the Politburo. The ACFTU and its provincial and local branches continued to establish new constituent unions and add new members, especially among migrant workers, in large, multinational enterprises. The law gives the ACFTU financial and administrative control over constituent unions empowered to represent employees in negotiating and signing collective contracts with enterprises and public institutions. The law does not mandate the ACFTU to represent the interests of workers in disputes.
The ACFTU and the CCP used a variety of mechanisms to influence the selection of trade union representatives. Although the law states trade union officers at each level should be elected, ACFTU-affiliated unions appointed most factory-level officers, often in coordination with employers. Official union leaders were often drawn from the ranks of management. Direct election by workers of union leaders continued to be rare, occurred only at the enterprise level, and was subject to supervision by higher levels of the union or the CCP. In enterprises where direct election of union officers took place, regional ACFTU officers and local CCP authorities retained control over the selection and approval of candidates. Even in these cases, workers and NGOs expressed concern about the credibility of elections.
The law does not expressly prohibit work stoppages and does not prohibit workers from striking spontaneously. Although authorities appeared more tolerant of strikes protesting unpaid or underpaid wages, reports of police crackdowns on strikes continued throughout the year. For example, on May 27, police in Lu’an, Anhui Province, suppressed a group of teachers calling for wage parity with local civil servants, as mandated in the 1994 Teachers Law. Wage-related issues constituted 82 percent of the 6,694 strikes and collective protests recorded during 2015-17 by the Hong Kong-based labor rights NGO China Labor Bulletin.
In cases where local authorities cracked down on strikes, they sometimes charged leaders with vague criminal offenses, such as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” “gathering a crowd to disturb public order,” or “damaging production operations,” or detained them without any charges. The only legally specified roles for the ACFTU in strikes are to participate in investigations and to assist the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security in resolving disputes.
Enforcement was generally insufficient to deter wide-scale violations. Labor inspectors lacked authority and resources to compel employers to correct violations. While the law outlines general procedures for resolving disputes, procedures were lengthy and subject to delays. Local authorities in some areas actively sought to limit efforts by independent civil society organizations and legal practitioners. Some areas maintained informal quotas on the number of cases allowed to proceed beyond mediation to arbitration or the courts. Some local government authorities took steps to increase mediation or arbitration. For example, on March 6, the Maoming Municipal Intermediate Court and Maoming Municipal Trade Union jointly established the Labor Arbitration and Mediation Coordination Office to facilitate better communication and ease tensions in labor disputes. An official from the local People’s Congress noted the increasing number of arbitrations, lengthy legal proceedings, and high litigation costs were not helpful in constructing positive and harmonious labor-capital relations.
Despite the appearances of a strong labor movement and relatively high levels of union registration, genuine freedom of association and worker representation did not exist. The ACFTU constituent unions were generally ineffective in representing and protecting the rights and interests of workers. Workers generally did not view the ACFTU as an advocate, especially migrant workers who had the least interaction with union officials.
China Labor Bulletin reported workers throughout the country engaged in wildcat strikes, work stoppages, and other protest actions and claimed the workers’ actions were indicative of the ACFTU’s inability to prevent violations and resolve disputes. Media reported a number of protests at factories in the southern part of the country.
The government increasingly targeted labor activists, students, and others advocating for worker rights during the year. For example, beginning in July and continuing through the end of the year, the government detained multiple workers, students, NGO representatives, lawyers, and others in response to demonstrations and online posts in support of workers attempting to form a union at Jasic Technology, a manufacturer of industrial welding equipment in Shenzhen. Workers at the factory reportedly tried to establish a trade union in response to complaints of low pay and poor working conditions. Although the lead organizers of the union reportedly received some information and assistance to set up an enterprise-level union from the local ACFTU branch, company management subsequently set up an enterprise union, selected management representatives to serve as union leaders, and fired the workers who had attempted to organize a union. Following protests by the workers in July, the lead organizers were reportedly physically attacked, inciting protests in Shenzhen and elsewhere. Guangdong labor activists, the Maoist organization Wu-You-Zhi-Xiang, leftist university students, and Hong Kong trade unions supported the protests.
Shenzhen police reportedly detained approximately 30 workers and representatives from the Dagongzhe Worker’s Center for their alleged connection with the Jasic protests. Several of the worker activists were charged with “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order.” Authorities also reportedly raided the offices of “Pioneers of the Times” and a Beijing-based publisher “Red Reference,” and criminally detained a staff member of “Red Reference.” On August 24, authorities in Guangdong, Beijing, and other parts of the country detained multiple workers and students from Peking, Renmin, and Nanjing Universities who had been supporting the workers. In early November the government detained nine student organizers and factory workers in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen and three activists in Wuhan. The government also detained two local ACFTU officials in Shenzhen in November. Authorities detained and questioned additional students in December.
Despite restrictions on worker action, joint action across provinces took place in several other sectors. For example, on May 1, a strike by crane drivers in the construction industry spread nationwide as operators demanded pay raises in a number of cities, including Yulin and Chongzuo in Guangxi, and Xiamen, Fujian Province. In June protests by truck drivers over stagnant pay, high fuel costs, and arbitrary fines took place at various locations in Shandong, Sichuan, Chongqing, Anhui, Guizhou, Jiangxi, Hubei, Henan, and Zhejiang Provinces, as well as in the Shanghai Special Municipality.
Coordinated efforts by governments at the central, provincial, and local levels, including harassment, detention, and the imposition of travel restrictions on labor rights defenders and restrictions on funding sources for NGOs, disrupted labor rights advocacy. Labor activist and 1989 prodemocracy movement veteran Liu Shaoming remained in custody after the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court sentenced him to four and one-half years’ imprisonment in 2017 for “inciting subversion of state power.”