Liu Shinan

Unions must protect, not placate

By Liu Shinan (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-10 06:45
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Nearly 1,200 members of the Shenzhen Trade Union, who were dispatched to assuage aggrieved employees at Foxconn's factory in the city's Longhua district, showed "good progress" after eight days of effort, the Chinese media reported on Monday.

The union members had candid discussions with (Foxconn) employees, coordinated communication with the company management and organized recreational activities, the papers reported.

Remember this: The unit employs 300,000 workers, yet has no trade union.

The news reports certainly reassure readers that something is being done.

It serves to throw up a picture of harmony after a recent spate of 13 suicides claimed the lives of 10 workers in months.

Yet, the union members' show of concern prompted a question: "What did the city's trade union do before or during the period of the attempted suicides, including the time when an employee at the factory took his own life last year after he was beaten up for allegedly stealing an iPhone prototype?"

The second question that came to my mind was: "What role must a trade union play in China?"

My understanding of that responsibility - as the commonsense approach would suggest - is that unions must protect the legitimate rights and interests of employees, especially during conflicts with company managements.

That so many workers committed suicide at the Foxconn unit within a relatively short span of time was bizarre enough; yet no union took concerted action to ascertain its cause or improve the conditions of workers at the factory.

When the number of suicides touched double digits on May 21, I decided to express my opinion in these pages, citing social injustice (including capital's ruthless exploitation of labor) as the root cause of employee despair.

On the morning of May 25, just as I was working on the piece, another Foxconn employee leapt to his death at the Longhua plant.

After revising the figure from 10 to 11 in my article, I inadvertently thought: "Will there be a 12th such attempt?" Immediately, I chided myself for that ominous thought.

Unfortunately, the 12th suicide did occur the following day - a migrant worker from Northwest China's Gansu province jumped to his death from the seventh floor of his dormitory building at the plant.

More horrifying, just five hours later, another employee from Central China's Hunan province slashed his wrists in an attempt to kill himself.

In less than 48 hours, three workers in the same plant had attempted suicide.

What a terrible thing!

The suicides could only have been driven by absolute despair, I thought.

What caused such misery? Low wages, forced extra work hours, little expectation of change in work conditions and lack of emotional support from colleagues.

No trade union official was at hand to indulge in "heart-to-heart talks", much less fight for better remuneration on behalf of workers.

Foxconn's boss obviously understood the reason behind the suicides. The company soon raised the standard monthly wages of its assembly line workers from 900 to 1,200 yuan, and announced a plan to further raise it to 2,000 yuan by October.

Frankly, this is still not high enough given the company's huge profit margins from the manufacture of electronic goods for global IT giants.

Still, it represented progress, although it cost 10 precious lives (three of the workers survived their attempted suicides).

In the meantime, workers at Japanese auto giant Honda's parts unit in Foshan - a city not far from Shenzhen - in South China's Guangdong province, got a raise of 366 yuan after staging a 16-day strike.

There certainly was an employee trade union at the plant, but the organization did nothing to help the workers.

Ever since China became a market economy, conflicts between company managements and workers, especially in foreign- and Taiwan-invested companies, and other private enterprises, have increased, leading to tense stand-offs.

Trade unions though have done little to protect workers' interests. They have been more concerned about placating employee grievances in order to "harmonize" relations with the managements.

Most trade union officials are also members of the Communist Party. They must never forget that they, first and foremost, represent workers' interests, and that they must do more than simply hold "heart-to-heart" discussions with employees in order to safeguard those rights.