Tuesday | January 1, 2008

The Shanker Institute sponsored a seminar on January 15–16, 2008 in Washington, D.C. focused on the implications and impact of recently enacted labor law reform in China entitled “Labor Law Reform in China: What are the Implications for Worker Rights? For Political Liberalization?” 

The purpose of the program was to bring together China experts for a real discussion on whether or not the new labor law, which took effect on January 1, 2008, will actually give workers more voice and improve their lives. The presenters and seminar participants included more than 50 trade unionists, academics, attorneys, worker rights activists, and others deeply involved in programs dealing with China

The new “labor contract” law is aimed at privatized industries, and especially at the growing foreign-owned sector. The law appears designed to provide increased job security and strengthen legal protections to high seniority contract workers. It also enhances the role of the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the ruling communist party labor organization, since it leaves most of China’s labor relations framework — and the ACFTU’s monopoly on workplace worker organization — essentially untouched. Independent unions and freedom of association for workers remain banned.

The passage of the new law and other government actions raises a number of questions about its reform strategy and the enforceability of the law itself. The passage of the new law was ferociously opposed by multinational corporations, especially U.S.-based ones, who argued that the law carries excessive penalties, creates a heavy paperwork burden, places unacceptable restrictions on employers’ right to fire workers, all of which will raise costs and reduce competitiveness. In anticipation of the new law, some of these companies have engaged in mass layoffs of those high seniority workers who will be immediately covered by these new provisions. 

Seminar presenters included leaders and activists from a number of unions representing both the AFL-CIO and Unite to Win, representatives from China Labour Bulletin, Human Rights Watch, and leading academics in the field. They discussed the new law in terms of the potential impact on ongoing grassroots legal advocacy for individual workers.  They addressed such questions as: Will the new law provide greater space for such work? In the face of business opposition, will the government simply ignore non-compliance?  If implementation of the law is seen as potentially undermining government or party control, will its features be largely ignored? What can the international democratic labor movement do to draw attention to compliance or lack of compliance with its best features? Are contacts with the ACFTU likely to improve the conditions of Chinese workers in this evolving situation, or merely strengthen and legitimize an organ of the government?

These issues prompted intense discussions and exchanges among the participants in the seminar-style event.

The program was the second on China and the fourth in a series on international affairs. Other programs have focused on the Middle East and the role of trade unions in the international promotion of democracy.