World News

Chinese workers seek rights in court, not unions

BEIJING (Reuters) - Workers in China have become more aware of their rights and willing to go to court to fight for them, but are still hampered by an official ban on independent unions, a labour activist said on Thursday.

Publicity over the 2008 Labour Contract Law, which was opposed by some private business owners and foreign investors, is partly responsible for increased awareness, said Geoffrey Crothall, editor of China Labour Bulletin (CLB), which on Thursday released a survey of labour disputes in China.

Local governments are also becoming somewhat more accommodating of workers’ claims, although in some industries, particularly coal mining, they collude with bosses to stamp out worker action, he said..

“In general, the Chinese government is more conciliatory towards Chinese workers, but that’s not to say that everything in the garden is rosy,” Crothall told reporters.

“Workers are still harassed and detained, although they are less likely to receive long prison sentences.

Collectively, Chinese workers still lack a mechanism to resolve disputes stemming from unpaid wages and poor working conditions, particularly after an economic downturn last year and made economic growth China’s main priority, he said.

The state-backed All China Federation of Trade Unions is unlikely to fight for workers against owners, since its branches are often dominated by management and local party officials.

The union, which collects dues from members’ wages, last year made a strong push to expand into foreign multinationals’ operations in China.

Chinese workers are forbidden from forming independent trade unions.

But singly, workers have seen increased success when they pursue cases through the courts, CLB found.

“The legal process does work. There are still lots of problems, but if the worker manages to take the boss to court, and manages to jump through the hoops, there’s a good chance he’ll win,” Crothall told reporters.

That has spurred some bosses to hire their own lawyers and attempt to drag out court cases until the plaintiffs give up, Crothall said.

Ironically the Labour Contract Law also contributed to abuses before it was implemented last year, as many factory owners tried to fire long-time employees and reinstate them as sort-term workers in order to deny them benefits.

CLB founder Han Dongfang, a worker activist during the Tiananmen protests of 1989, was imprisoned and exiled from China and now runs the organisation from Hong Kong.