A voice for workers
The decision by technology giant Foxconn to organise democratic, competitive trade union elections among its 1.2 million Chinese workforce is a landmark moment not only for Chinese industrial relations, but for the country’s tortoise-like progress towards democracy.
China’s rapid growth and industrialisation has created both huge demand for labour and vast concentrations of workers in plants like Foxconn’s. They work long, often illegal, hours in poor conditions, many with no choice but to live in vast factory dormitories. Turnover is high. But such realities have strengthened both the militancy and bargaining power of workers forced to rely until now on state/Communist Party-controlled unions seen as collaborators of management. Most are little more than training organisations.
Unofficial stoppages and protests have become more common. The government “is likely worried about industrial unrest,” says Auret van Heerden, head of the US Fair Labour Association (FLA), a workers’ rights NGO. “It is clear they want to get the courtyard and to the negotiating table”. If managing dissent is largely the objective, elections should nevertheless help improve conditions and pay, and may give workers other ideas subversive of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.
Significantly, part of the driving force for change is pressure brought on the Taiwanese- owned company by Apple, under fire in the US over the practices of its subcontractors, and which has hired the FLA to audit Foxconn operations. The FLA reported in August that the firm had implemented some three-quarters of 360 recommendations it made about three of its factories. Times are changing.
Meanwhile, Irish employers’ organisation Ibec says it will oppose any move to introduce mandatory union recognition or collective bargaining rights as part of a new review established by Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton.