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Trade Unions Play New Role to Safeguard Migrant Workers' Rights

China's trade unions are ramping up efforts to protect the migrant workers who form the backbone of China's working population.


About 29.5 million farmer-turned migrant workers had joined trade unions by July 2006 and trade unions plan to recruit 8 million new members each year for the next three years, according to the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).


"The Chinese trade unions have taken up the challenge of organizing and representing this key component of the workforce. We will try to build a network to help and protect migrant workers," says Sun Chunlan, ACFTU vice chairman.


China's 200 million migrant workers make up more than one seventh of the total population and their number is expected to grow by 13 million each year as the country's urbanization gathers pace.


"Our situation has improved. In the past, the bosses would not let us leave the construction site on the weekend without permission, but that is no longer the case," says 30-year-old Lu Jiansong, a migrant worker and trade union member who works for Jiangsu Nantong No. 2 Construction Group on its Beijing construction sites.


"Another big difference is that nobody comes along now to check our temporary residence permits. Those checks always used to make me feel looked down upon," says Lu, who has been working as an electrician for eight years. "I feel more accepted by the city. The representatives of the trade unions often come to the construction sites to talk with us and help tackle our problems."


Migrant workers in China face the kind of problems encountered by immigrant workers in many developed countries. Most enter the urban environment with limited skills, and start their life in the city as construction or service workers, security guards, hotel and restaurant workers and janitors.


Major headache for migrant workers


A common problem for migrant workers -- and one the unions are campaigning to overcome -- is late payment or non-payment of wages.


Migrant workers have demonstrated to demand back wages or resorted to extreme actions such as suicide or even criminal action.


In random interviews at Beijing Western Railway Station where many migrant workers hang out, waiting for jobs, bedding down for the night or preparing to return home after failing to find jobs, most said late or non-payment of wages are the perils that upset them far more than the work itself.


40-year-old Liu Deying from Queshan County in central China's Henan Province said, together with other workers, he once took to the streets when his bosses defaulted on payment of 100,000 yuan worth (US$12,500) of wages for 60-plus workers.


"Justice must help us recover the fruit of our sweat." Holding aloft slogans they had scrawled on torn bed-sheets, the workers held a public demonstration to express their anger and exasperation. Liu's farmer friends said the action was both heroic and effective, since the bosses were forced to pay the wages after the media and government intervened.


"Before migrant workers did not know where to turn for help," said Chen Guorui, division-chief with the ACFTU's Grass-roots Organization and Capacity Building Department.


But that was three years ago, and Liu said they are now more experienced and turn to the trade unions and local labor and social security departments if they run into a problem.


Liu, who can earn 30 to 45 yuan a day as a construction worker, believes "powerful organizations" such as trade unions and local labor and social security departments must help migrant workers.


The ACFTU, which formerly would only organize workers with urban residence permits, now makes special efforts to organize migrants. China's central government has stressed protection of migrant workers' rights in recent years.


Construction departments in many cities have issued regulations requiring real estate developers to deposit money before starting a project to ensure that funds are available to pay workers even if the bosses run into problems.


In a case in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning Province in northeastern China's rust belt, about 30 migrant workers climbed onto the roof of a tall building last July and threatened to jump off if they did not get the 1.2 million yuan (US$150,000) back wages owed to them.


"The trade unions spent almost a whole day negotiating with the boss who was in financial difficulties. The migrant workers eventually came down safely after the boss had raised enough money to pay them," said Zhang Jincheng, deputy president of Shenyang Municipal Trade Unions. "Dealing with such emergencies is part of the grass-roots trade unions' work."


Another important job for the trade unions is to increase migrant workers' knowledge of the law, including the contracts they sign with bosses," Zhang said.


Trade unions claimed 1.31 billion yuan (US$163.75 million) of back wages for 2.80 million migrant workers in 2005, according to the ACFTU.


Challenges ahead


Even if progress has been made, ACFTU officials admitted there are still big challenges ahead.


"Trade unions cannot always fully cover the situation of seasonal or temporary migrant workers," Sun said.


One grass-roots union is experimenting by organizing migrant workers before they leave their hometowns.


The grass-roots unions make special efforts to incorporate them into the different trade unions, and into county, township and village union organizations. "We're trying to enroll more of them, and then we can defend their interests under the labor law and also with regard to social insurance," Chen said.


Another challenge is that many migrant workers sign no contract with their employers, even though the labor law makes employment contracts obligatory.


"If we ask for a contract, the bosses will let us go because there are many others queuing for a job and they are not so troublesome as to ask for a contract," said migrant worker Liu.


In the eastern city of Nanjing, trade unions have made sure that public sector service employees, who are mostly migrant workers, have signed contracts. They have also represented migrant workers in negotiating collective labor contracts with private employers.


Another fundamental disadvantage faced by migrants is the traditional "hukou" system of residence permits, which bars them access to the social and political rights and social security benefits enjoyed by permanent urban residents.


Once the wage arrears situation has been improved, the next item on the migrant workers' rights agenda is citizenship, including education, social security and voting rights equal to those of permanent urban residents, said Wang Chunguang, a veteran expert on migrant workers with the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).


"The trade unions are trying to do something for migrant workers," said Wang. "For example, the Shenzhen municipal trade union recently represented migrant workers in a negotiation to raise minimum wages."


"Efforts are being made, but migrant workers remain skeptical. They are dubious about how much the trade unions are able to influence the government and firms," Wang said.


Only a minority of migrant workers are unionized.


"Less than 20 percent of migrant workers have joined trade unions. Trade unions must become more appealing to migrant workers," Sun said.


"We farmers don't know much about trade unions," said 40-year-old Sun Changfa from Zhuxian County in Henan Province. Sun and ten comrades are heading home. They failed to obtain the 4,000 yuan (US$500) owed to them after laboring at a construction site for 10 days. Unable to find new jobs, their money is running out.


Some grass-roots organizations are trying to supplement the work of trade unions and the government. Beijing-based Xiao Xiao Niao (Little Little Bird) Cultural Communication Center is one of them.


"We are trying to pool the energy of voluntary lawyers, governmental organizations and reporters to negotiate with bosses to recover unpaid wages," said 34-year-old Wei Wei, who created the center seven years ago with other migrant workers using money raised from donations.


The center has helped recover nearly 90 million yuan (US$11.25 million) of back wages for about 11,000 migrant workers in the past seven years. It now has 11 full-time workers and about 2,000 volunteers in Beijing, Shenzhen and Shenyang.


"Trade unions should work with positive non-governmental organizations like Xiao Xiao Niao to tackle the problems, because some migrant workers in south China are turning to semi-gang groups for help," Wang says.


(China Features, November 13, 2006)

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