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Author:   Article source: FTCHINESE  Hits:1410  Add time:2009-5-29  
In March 2006 Zhang Zhiru, founder of the Shenzhen Migrant Workers Association, collected 10,000 signatures requesting free arbitration services for workers in labour disputes. For his trouble, police in the southern Chinese manufacturing hub detained the activist for four hours.
A few months later, Mr Zhang organised an online drive that generated a similarly strong response. “The two petitions were quite successful,” he says. “But as a result, our association was banned by the government.”
Two years on, the indefatigable Mr Zhang is director of the Shenzhen Chunfeng Labour Disputes Service Centre, which offers workers free courses on their legal rights and helps them pursue industrial injury claims.

The shift in his fortunes is telling. Like other activists who for years have been fighting for workers' rights in the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong province, source of most of the cheap Chinese goods that have flooded the world over the past decade, Mr Zhang now operates with the approval of the government, which has granted Chunfeng an official registration.
It is still a delicate balance. While China's rising number of middle-class malcontents are quick to protest one-off threats to their relatively comfortable existences – such as a nuclear plant or rail project nearby – they are otherwise coddled by government policies. Workers' grievances, by contrast, range from exploitation by employers to administrative discrimination against migrants who have moved to coastal factory towns from poor provinces in the interior.
They also have a lot less to lose than China's professional classes, making any independent labour movement forged outside the official All China Federation of Trade Unions one of the greatest potential threats to the Communist party's grip on power.
Official preoccupation with economic output, to which independent trade unions are seen as a threat, places limits on the activities even of tolerated non- governmental organisations such as Chunfeng. Union organisation “is a sensitive subject”, Mr Zhang says. “We would like to [help workers organise] but that's the government's job. We are just trying to make workers more aware of their legal rights.”
Despite the restrictions, Chunfeng has never been busier. “Before this year, we handled about 10 cases a month,” says Mr Zhang, who turns 34 this year. “Now it's up to about 30.” The catalyst is China's new Labour Contract Law, which took effect in January after two years of intense debate.
In January, the number of labour disputes accepted for arbitration in Shenzhen more than quadrupled to 740. Similar leaps have been recorded in other cities. Worker activists have welcomed the law for beginning to address a Dickensian imbalance in employer-employee relations belying the official push to build a more “harmonious” society.
“You began to see [the political shift] in 2006 when the consultation period for the Labour Contract Law started,” says Han Dongfang, director of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. “That was the official signal that enough was enough. The situation had gone too far. It wasn't a harmonious society. It was the opposite.” Seen from this perspective, the new law is as much a consequence of China's emerging labour movement as it is a spur for it.
The law entitles more workers to open-ended contracts and a month's compensation for every year served if they are made redundant. It also restricts companies' ability to hire workers on an informal basis through third-party labour agencies and later fire them without compensation.
At least as important, the law appears to enshrine a right to collective bargaining. That raises the prospect of in-house unions that are independent in practice, if not in name, from the government-affiliated ACFTU. Unions established outside its umbrella remain illegal.
Since 2006, ACFTU has intensified efforts to establish branches in companies where those did not previously exist, with an emphasis on large foreign multinationals such as Wal-Mart. These unions are now beginning to flex their collective bargaining muscles. Agreements were recently concluded at Wal-Mart stores in three cities including Shenzhen.
“Negotiations went slowly because everything had to be approved by Wal-Mart headquarters,” says Fu Furong, head of the ACFTU branch in Quanzhou, Fujian province. “But the process was quite smooth. It does not compare to the effort involved in establishing the first Wal-Mart union two years ago.”
This year, ACFTU's Shenzhen chapter, which Mr Han and other activists say is among the country's most progressive, displayed its new-found sense of initiative by retaining six law firms to represent workers. Considering the relatively tame request for free arbitration services that landed Mr Zhang in trouble two years ago, the retainers are one measure of just how far the labour debate has moved in China. Zheng Ma, a lawyer at one of the firms, says: “I see changes in the Shenzhen ACFTU's attitude. It wants to provide better service.”

ACFTU officials in Shenzhen declined requests for an interview. But Mr Han of China Labour Bulletin sees a simple imperative behind ACFTU's actions – survival. Itrisked irrelevance because it was neither preventing unrest nor adequately representing workers. “If I were an ACFTU official, I wouldn't have been able to sleep,” Mr Han says. “The Labour Contract Law presented ACFTU with a big opportunity.”
Implementation, however, can vary widely, as illustrated by Zou Pingzhen's mixed experience with the new law. In January, Mr Zou's employer of 13 years, a Hong Kong printing company with operations in Shenzhen, offered him a three-year contract, even though his long service entitled him to an open-ended one. “There were over 400 workers with more than 10 years' service in the factory,” says Mr Zou, a 38-year-old father of two. “I wrote to ACFTU but it wouldn't help. Then we turned to NGOs and I led more than 100 people to the [district] labour bureau to complain.” The workers eventually prevailed in April, when those entitled to open-ended contracts received them.
But Mr Zou, a warehouse supervisor at the outset of the dispute, says he was demoted and denied overtime, reducing his salary from Rmb3,000 ($440, £220, 280) a month to Rmb1,100. “They said I was illegally trying to organise my own trade union, which was not true,” he says. “I am just a normal person who knows how to protect himself and help others.”
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