Workers rights to collective bargaining and China's next step
Mr Han Dongfang, Mainland China labour activist and radio commentator, was the Foundation's guest speaker on 19 October 2010. Below are his remarks.George (Foundation Vice Chairman), thank you for your introduction. I remember the very first time I visited Poland in 1996, people called me Chinese Lech Walesa. I don't say I'm against that but the truth is that right from the start I said I was not. Nor am I going to be. I just want to make that clear.
George, you mentioned the movie "The Gate of Heavenly Peace". If anyone saw that or is going to see that, I suggest you pay attention when the film approaches to the end. I said one thing: If you have a group of people, they are so hungry and they are sitting under an apple tree. All the red apples have been taken away and only one sour green apple is left, that is democracy. But they are hungry. Do you think that they have the right to grab that green one and bite it? Or do they have to wait until the green one gets red and is grabbed by someone else. It's not about right or wrong. It's about if you push people into a corner so that that's the only choice they have, you don't blame anyone for what happens, right or wrong. It's just destiny. I suggest we pay a little attention to that comment.
Last week I had conversations with two different people from different places in China. One was from Sichuan; the other was from Hunan. I want to share these conversations with you.
The Sichuan postman
That was in December 2007. What is special about that date? Because January 2008 the labour contract law would be in effect. Anyone still in post by then wouldn't be able to be fired that easily. Therefore all the managers were in a hurry in the end of 2007 to move their employees or change their contract into another format. Even the state post office was doing that. These postal staff they lost everything - more than 30 years, nearly 40 years of service, and they lost it. This man told me in December 2007 he was receiving 1,500 Yuan and January 2008 it turned into 280. His costs every month were exactly 750 Yuan. So basically he is paying for that position himself to continue his work. Why? He told me, just to keep a hope: if I keep paying that and losing my own money, if I keep this position I may get justice in the future. But if I don't do that, I'll lose everything immediately.
You have the unrealised gain or loss or realized gain or loss. He doesn't want to realise that loss. That's the only thing that keeps him going today as a postman.
The Hunan power worker
Why were they alleged to have missed 15 days? Because the company, the State Power Company of the province, wanted these people to sign a contract with a labour agency, so that these people would no longer be State Power Company employees but labour agency employees. Then these people would have no benefits, no social security. Whenever the managers wanted to fire them, they could fire them. That was the reason that they want these people to sign a contract with the agency. They refuse to sign the contract but they continued working. So after 15 days without signing the contract with that agent, the labour agent, even though they continued work, they were fired. This was because they did not get registered everyday with the company. So this is one of the extreme cases.
When I had this conversation with the worker from Hunan particularly - Mr Yang, 36 years old, I was struck by voice how quiet his voice was he when we discussed how the company treated him at that moment when the four people decided they would chop off their own fingers. The quiet voice really shocked me. That someone could do that and still be really calm - that scared me. Why? I believe if someone is frustrated enough to chop off their finger, it's just one tiny step away from chopping off someone's head. There's no big difference. The mentality is just absolutely the same. Just at that moment the decision was made to chop off their own fingers and not another person's head, for example, the head of the manager of that company. That doesn't prevent these people from not doing that. By the way, after these people had chopped off their fingers, they were arrested by the provincial police in Beijing which was illegal. They crossed into the Beijing jurisdiction area. They were immediately arrested and brought back to Hunan province and arrested for 15 days. Their problem's not solved.
So in these two cases we found lawyers for them. We represented them in court. Now it seems because of our involvement, their cases are getting more attention and officials are being more careful. They now start offering them some different plans but it's still in progress.
Half way market economy
If we stick half way through we have to pay a price for that, like Foxconn workers, like these workers'fingers and someone's head being cut off at night by some angry workers. They don't have other choices. I mean in the planned economy, the government decides everything. It's okay if every year your salary goes up some percentage according to inflation or whatever, the government controls everything.
Now it's the market in China. You buy things in the market at the market price. You go back to your workplace, but your salary is not connected closely to the market price. You're buying things every day. So these two things cannot be disconnected for too long. But in China this has been disconnected for about 30 years. To me it is too long. So I believe collective bargaining is an ideal way to solve this.
Collective bargaining is not something new globally. In world history we have the international trade union movement, we have collective bargaining elsewhere. Even if you go to developed countries you have some people who dislike trade unions and dislike the idea of collective bargaining in the workplace. That's okay. But you still have trade unions and collective bargaining, you have them in law, you have them in daily practice, to make a decision on workplace salaries. But in China we don't have that system.
I see the Honda factory worker as a kind of informal collective bargaining: it looks different from the real thing. Because we don't have the legal framework, they cannot first elect their representatives in a peaceful nice way and then send their representatives to the management office and say ok now we would like to request this year's bargaining in two weeks time or in two months time, so would you please deal with it or make suggestions and get back to us. We set up a date and a period to negotiate so it's done systematically.
But it doesn't happen like that in China. Collective bargaining exists in a form of strikes and not strikes in a normal way but wildcat strikes. No one knows when the strike will happen. Probably that morning someone did not sleep well the previous night and just felt tired, pushed the button and stopped working. Everybody else got angry too, and then there you go. So to me collective bargaining exists everywhere in the world, and exists in China too. But in China it's destructive.
When we talk about collective bargaining, what we mean is this. Can we introduce it systematically so as to make collective bargaining in reality constructive rather than destructive? I regard this strike form of collective bargaining as destructive. It is a three-way losing kind of format: the workers risk being fired; the employer risks being late to deliver the products; the government risk having more social and political instability. It's a three-party losing solution.
Of course, China is being hit in a special way. We don't have enough internal consumption. We depend too much on exports. China put in 4 trillion yuan of investment to push up economy and it's half way through. It's time to look for a way out from the investment-driven growth economy into a consumption driven model. But where can we find the consumption power? I would say the most effective one will be the worker's salary raise. Not raising salaries in a chaotic way - every time you go and organize strike to have a salary raise - but collective bargaining in a peaceful way. So think about this. If you have conservatively 300 million workers in China, if each year they can have a reasonable raise in their salary more like 10%, 9% - don't forget Foxconn gave them double and Honda gave them more than 50%, those are extreme cases, but employers do have some margin and some room to raise salaries. This money the workers receive becomes buying power the next week. To me it's the most effective quick and real consumption power that we can create.
Think if we have collective bargaining system in China for economic reasons. The workers would have the right to elect their representatives in the workplace, not to vote for the President of the country, but elect their workplace representatives. These representatives will not make any political points but their job is to represent the workers to negotiate with their employer for everything - working hours, working conditions, holidays and salary level. All these economic matters will be dealt with by democratically elected representatives. Think about that again - let's take 300 million Chinese workers: the people negotiating on behalf of them in their daily life are democratically elected. If the workers don't like them because they are not doing well, they would be kicked out and replaced by someone else.
This democratic practice in the workplace regarding economic matters poses no political challenge to anyone. But when it becomes a habit, becomes part of life, I should call it democracy as a way of living or a habit of living. This is exactly the way to inject this kind of daily living habit into people's minds. I mean into their daily lives. When 300 million people already enjoy democratic rights in the workplace, although they won't necessarily realise it, this will transform China into a completely different thing. You will change the soil.
I don't think the Chinese government will be against this idea. I am now saying that this collective bargaining gives a chance for China to be more democratic but in a gradual peaceful way. That's the way out for the long term economically and politically. This is important for China and that's actually the reason I said to Alan (Foundation Chairman) that my topic connects collective bargaining in the workplace to the next step for China. This sound a kind of disconnect. To me it's really closely connected.
Just to go back to my beginning point, the green sour apple example. Are we going to wait or are we going to create an even worse situation, let this kind of green sour apple situation develop in the next 10 years to another 1989? Is that the thing we want? Or do we want something else that can be established in the workplace for the workers? No need to make a political challenge to anyone but let's have workers elect their representatives and to establish China's social reform even political reform. It is the very first step but a very strong step from the foundation level. So this is it.
The above does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation.