Foxconn recently announced workers would be able to vote for union representatives in its factories. The first election, scheduled for this July, is to be held in Foxconn’s Shenzhen complex (1,4). As reported by John Chan in a Feb 13th 2013 article, this is somewhat strange news as Foxconn claims it has already been holding union elections since the creation of the Foxconn Federation of Labour Unions in 2008. Chan argues this Federation of Labor was created in order to extend the policing role of the CCP’s state-controlled unions into the private sector (3,4).
The only substantial change to Foxconn’s 2008 policy reflected in the new announcement seems to be the inclusion of four “junior workers” from each of the 12 manufacturing sections in the Shenzhen complex (1,3,4). Though additional representation may help ease worker/manager relations it does not, given the small numbers of new representatives, do much to ensure collective bargaining rights for workers, nor does it give them any new meaningful leverage in their growing struggle for fair compensation and equal rights.
Independent unions are in fact still illegal in China, as are worker strikes, and the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) (see footnote) is known to frequently and publicly back employers and the CCP regime against the very workers they’re meant to protect. It also boasts ultimate control over all enterprise unions throughout the country including Foxconn’s union (3). In Foxconn, as in other enterprises, senior company managers, often CCP branch secretaries, run the unions rather than workers (4). This fact explains why many observers believe any new union representation in Foxconn plants is either A. largely symbolic and/or B. intended as more of a pressure-release valve for growing tensions between labor and management.
Not only does Foxconn’s recent move not impart any real increase in power or ability to organize for workers outside of its current system, but so far there have also been no additional protections being offered elected representatives (2). China has many laws that provide legal protection for workers, but most of them are selectively enforced, leaving worker representatives vulnerable to retaliation by management and party leaders. Cases have been reported where organizers were not only fired from their company positions but also detained by local police for weeks on end.
Foxconn’s latest efforts are seen by many observers as an attempt to stem worker unrest and avoid further negative news coverage. It may also be an attempt to preserve the CCP party’s power by averting protests, strikes or otherwise politically motivated upheavals by workers in China (1,3,4). It goes without saying that there is a lot of labor unrest and political demonstrations at this time in China (4).
The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) was originally founded in 1925, after which it was repealed twice (once by the Chinese Nationalist government and once by Mao Zedong and the Cultural Movement) before being reinstituted once again in 1976. Under the new law independent unions were made illegal, effectively giving the ACFTU a government-controlled/sanctioned monopoly on unions in China – one that doesn’t allow freedom of association, collective bargaining or strikes to occur (4,6). In 2008 Chinese policy changed requiring Chinese, but also foreign owned companies to create their own SCFTU chapters. Though there was some resistance, most notably by Wal-Mart, most companies have chosen to join. This makes sense given the ACFTU provides no real security to workers and cooperation is incentivized with government tax cuts. The addition of these companies has driven membership rates higher and further solidified the SCFTU’s role as a “yellow” union by consistently acting to defend economic growth and the protection of its own political organ over workers rights. Companies that continue to resist are blacklisted and subjected to audits, tax examinations and accusations of labor violations (4,5,6).