The Multinational Monitor

JUNE 1997 · VOLUME 18 · NUMBER 6


Toward an Independent
Chinese Trade Union Movement
An interview with Han Dongfang

Han Dongfang helped organize China's first independent trade union, and was a leader of the labor movement in China's 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations. He turned himself in to the police after escaping the Tiananmen Square massacre and was jailed under brutal conditions for 22 months. After release, and medical treatment in the United States, he returned to China, only to be arrested and deported immediately. He now lives in Hong Kong and publishes the China Labour Bulletin. He says that he intends to stay in Hong Kong after Beijing takes over on July 1.

Multinational Monitor: How did you get involved in the labor movement?

Han Dongfang: After 3 years in the army, I went to the Beijing railway bureau and became a railway worker. I was involved in the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square and I organized the first independent trade union in China since 1949 with some other workers and students. After the demonstrations, I was held in jail for 22 months without trial and I got TB there [from being housed intentionally with tuberculous prisoners]. In January 1992, I received an invitation letter from the AFL-CIO, Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch. They invited me to the United States to have medical treatment. In May 1993, a doctor removed my right lung.

Three months after having my lung removed, I went back to China. I stayed for one night in a hotel in Hangzhou. The next morning, the security police found me and arrested me immediately. The same afternoon, they sent me out to Hong Kong and took my money and bought a plane ticket to Zurich. But I stayed in Hong Kong.

Since then I have tried several times, unsuccessfully, to return to China. Since 1994, I have published the China Labour Bulletin.

MM: What is the situation of independent trade unions in China?

Han: The independent trade union idea was started in China in 1989, though it lasted for just two weeks. Many people have continued to organize. In our trade union, when the people were released [from jail], they still thought of themselves as members of the organization.

For example, in 1992 there were some people arrested in May [for trade union activities]. They formed an underground trade union called China's Free Trade Union. They sent a speech underground to an ILO conference in Geneva. Someone read the speech there, so they were arrested and were sentenced from three to 20 years.

The movement is coming from the workers themselves. We don't want to be led by the Communist Party anymore, we want ourselves to organize a trade union. Tiananmen Square was just the beginning of that.

MM: What sectors of the economy have active independent trade union movements?

Han: I cannot say there is a movement. I can only say that there is a background and an environment for an independent trade union movement in China. Independent organizing can occur in any industry and any area, including state enterprises and the foreign sector, and joint ventures.

MM: To what extent do the official trade unions represent workers' interests?

Han: The Chinese trade union system is led by the publicity department of the Communist Party. It is a party organization. Their position is that the trade unions have to serve the government. In these organizations, it is the government which is the boss.

In some cases, workers with grievances complain to a special committee. The committee is organized into three parts, according to the principles of the International Labor Organization: workers, government and the employer. Very often, if you send an appeal there, you will find that the leader of the trade union, who should be representing the workers, is representing the enterprise.

MM: How has the government responded to trade union activity?

Han: If you try to speak for workers you will be in trouble. For example, in 1994 there were two cases. The first was a person named Zhao Guo-Chang. He was a lawyer. He produced 70 t-shirts with the hammer and sickle symbol of the Communist Party to remind people, "OK, remember what they said in the constitution. The working-class people are in charge of the state, so what is your situation?" That was his idea and he also felt the workers needed trade unions.

This was a very clear message to workers. He was given a three-year re-education sentence in labor camp, without trial of course. In jail they did the same thing to him [as they did to me]. They put him in with a TB prisoner. He got TB and they are not giving him medical treatment. Also his wife was arrested several times and beat up very badly.

In another case, seven people in Beijing openly prepared documents to start a non-governmental organization (NGO). We have regulations for how to apply for NGO status. They followed the regulations exactly and prepared a document and went to the Home Affairs Department to submit the document and ask for a form to register their organization. Home Affairs sent them to the Labor Bureau and the Labor Bureau said, "This is not our business, you can go back to Home Affairs." Home Affairs sent them back to the Labor Bureau again. Nobody would take the case. Several weeks later, they were all arrested.

Their main organizer was held for about half a year. After he was released, he went again to register the organization. They arrested him again and gave him three years' sentence without trial. They said one of the reasons [for his imprisonment] was illegally registering an illegal organization.

Another case took place last year in Shenzhen. In 1993, two people tried to set up an evening school for migrant workers to provide them with labor law education so they could protect themselves. The police closed the school, which they said was illegal. To tell workers about labor law is illegal. After that, the two tried to organize a migrant workers' federation and they were also told it was illegal. And then they organized an indoor forum in their home with their friends to discuss the future of the trade union movement in China, how to protect workers' rights and how important it is to protect workers' rights for the future of China. The police arrested them immediately and said they were discussing how to overthrow the government. They held them for two-and-a-half years from 1994 until the end of last year. Then they charged them with subversion, for which they received sentences of three-and-one-half years each.

MM: For workers who want to form unions, is there any difference between state and foreign-owned companies?

Han: No, it is the same.

MM: What are workers' biggest concerns?

Han: Unemployment is the biggest. If you lose your job you lose everything -- the workers have no unemployment benefits, no social security.

They have a new thing called xia gang, a new word invented by the Communist Party. It means "leave your position." It is not considered unemployment. You lose your pension and benefits and medical treatment. In name, you still have a job. You are supposed to pay for medical treatment and keep the receipts and the factory promises that one day it will repay you. These workers are not included in unemployment figures. For half a year maybe you will be paid half of your salary; after that, you have to find a new job by yourself. Nobody will take care of you.

At the beginning of this year, at the Beijing steel factory, a woman worker burned herself to death in front of the factory gates. They asked her to xia gang at age 44. At age 45 you can ask to retire, so she only had one year left before retirement. After more than 20 years of work she lost everything. She couldn't handle that and so she burned herself.

There's no chance for workers to discuss anything about xia gang. They just tell you, "Go," and you have to go. Under these kinds of conditions, I think circumstances are ripe for workers to think about organizing a trade union.

MM: What are workplace safety conditions like for Chinese workers?

Han: Again you have to look at the different sectors: state, foreign and local private enterprises.

I think local private firms are the worst, but we have no way of influencing them. The government does not want to take any responsibility for them. We hear of many, many cases where private mining and construction firms recruit workers promising to pay 500 yuan [$62] a month, and offering very good hours. Then they send them to their mines or brick factories. In many cases they lock them up and they are watched and beaten up during the work day, and they have to work more than 16 hours a day.

In the evening, they cannot go out. In the morning, the watchmen bring them to the workplace and in the evening they bring them back to the room and lock the door. There are bars on the windows. It's a jail.

The problem with the state companies is they are losing money so they don't have enough money to pay for health and safety. Now they have no money to repair their old ventilation systems. The system to give those people medical treatment is also getting worse than before.

The multinational corporations are much worse than state enterprises. The state enterprises have ventilation systems, some of which still work.

Many foreign companies, including electronics, toy and garment factories, don't have ventilation systems at all. In the special economic zones, most of the factories making shoes, toys or Christmas ornaments use very toxic glues, which cause serious blood diseases. It is very bad. According to national law, you need to have a ventilation system with filters. The great majority of factories don't have proper ventilation systems. Many of them don't even have fans.

In one town, which has been renamed Shoe City, we have a report on toy, garment and electronics factories. The investigators looked at 150 factories, and only one factory had a real ventilation system. I don't know how many had no fans. I know that in only one year, 1993 to 1994, 20 women workers in these factories contracted serious blood disease, with blood spots under their skin. Their veins break easily. The chemicals in the glue can cause that kind of problem. Four women died of blood disease. Many others had miscarriages. This is typical of the foreign sector, particularly in Hong Kong, Taiwanese and South Korean firms.

In the beginning of 1996, actually the second hour of 1996 at 2:00 in the morning, there was a big fire in Shenzhen. A Taiwanese company that produced Christmas lights and ornaments had 500 workers living in a simple dormitory. They used a warehouse and converted it with very thin paperboard dividers. They had clear rules saying you have to turn off the lights after 9:00 p.m., you have to go to sleep, because the next day you have to work 12 hours.

But a 17-year-old boy couldn't sleep and lit a candle to read. He fell asleep a short time later and the candle fell down and started a fire. There were only two exits for 500 people, so how could they get out? Many people stepped on each other. Twenty two died and many more were injured. This boy received a three-year sentence.

MM: What about U.S. firms?

Han: They are somewhat different. For example, consider Nike and Reebok. Those multinationals say, "We don't have our factory there. Our factory is quite good, we have ventilation systems and our pay system is quite good." It's true, but the majority of their production is done in contractors' factories. We learned of a case recently involving a Hong Kong-Taiwan company that produces for Reebok. They have five factories around Shenzhen. We interviewed the workers. They typically work more than 12 hours a day, and sometimes 16 hours. Their living conditions are very bad, payment is very low.

MM: How has "modernization" affected Chinese workers?

Han: Many people when they do research on Chinese people's lives make comparisons between now and 20 years ago and say great, big progress has been made. They have several pieces of evidence: TVs, refrigerators. TV is quite popular now. In cities almost every family has a TV and 20 years ago almost nobody could dream of having a TV. Also, they say, if you walk in the street in Shanghai, Xi'an, Guangzhou, Beijing and other big cities, you can see a lot of people, even young girls, with mobile phones, as well as very expensive cars, five-star hotels, karaoke, well-dressed people.

But I say, let's think about how easy it is for those business people and government officials to drive their own Benzes, and how difficult it is for a worker to buy a TV. It costs a workers' family three years' savings to buy a TV. For those people who buy a Benz car, maybe 10 days savings is enough. When you compare this way, are workers' lives getting easier or more difficult?

This point is especially important since the government has broken the old system of benefits and social security. I am not saying the old system was good. We need reform, we need to change the system. But the Communist Party believes that to change [the system] you first have to totally destroy it. So that's why we have no social security, and in 17 years [of economic reform] they have done almost nothing to save money for social security. They have wasted 17 years of time to save money. So now if you are unemployed, you get nothing.

MM: How have foreign companies affected social insurance policies?

Han: In some of the big joint venture car factories, including joint ventures with Audi and Volkswagen, the situation is quite good, and payments and housing are much better than state enterprises.

Other foreign firms just don't pay. As I remember the official figure, around 45 or 50 percent of foreign companies do not pay their workers' social insurance fee.

In special economic zones, the majority of foreign companies do not respect the labor law. They violate overtime restrictions. They fail to make overtime payments. Some of them don't respect the minimum wage.

Foreign companies have a lot of clever tricks. For example, how can you get a job for the first year? You have to pay a deposit of 500, 1000, 2000 yuan. If you have no money at the beginning, you must work three months with no salary. If you break a regulation, if you get fired, if you quit, you cannot take the money back. This is illegal, but everybody does it.

State firms, even those that have money, seem to have no idea that they have to pay social insurance fees. They say paying for social insurance and unemployment insurance is a waste of money. They just don't pay it.

MM: What is the result of companies failing to pay for social insurance and unemployment insurance?

Han: When people lose their jobs at these firms, the workers have no benefits and no short-term payments to buy food.

Even if you have a job, there is a problem with medical treatment. If you have a job you will be protected by medical insurance, but the manager, or the trade union president, will ask you to go to the hospital first, pay and keep the receipt. Some workers wait for five years for reimbursement.

When many workers get sick, they do not go to the hospital because they are afraid if they spend money they will not be repaid.

MM: How will privatization affect workers?

Han: It seems like the government is going to push privatization. This is their main idea of state enterprise reform.

There is a problem. What does state enterprise mean? It means the workers are shareholders. We own the enterprise already. But now we have to buy it again, we have to pay.

The top managers are always appointed by other government officials. They are just government officials, but they become top managers of factories. They don't have to take any responsibility for the results of the enterprises they head. They lose money, they waste money. They use their power and the enterprise's money [for their own benefit]. They invite many leaders from the government to have dinner and offer them alcohol and cigarettes, and reimburse their travel receipts.

Now they are going to ask the workers to buy shares. But who will the managers be responsible to? The state will keep the majority of the shares, so the top managers will remain government officials unaccountable to workers.

If they collect $10 million and spend it all within two years and then the factory still cannot make money, they will just go into bankruptcy. Those top managers will just move into a government department. The workers will lose their money.

Now is a very serious time. The workers should say, "OK, we are going to buy the shares, but we have to get the chance to monitor you."

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