This month legal scholar Liu Cheng of Shanghai Normal University is traveling around the US, meeting with community activists, lawyers, academics, and trade unionists from grass-roots activists up to the top officials at the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. He is here to talk about the latest developments in Chinese labor law and exchange ideas about advancing the rights of workers in China.
Professor Liu has been working closely on the development of Chinese labor law over the past several years. China passed a labor law in the early 1990s, due to concerns over the rights of worker in a rapidly marketized economy. There are plans to continue amending the law and passing new laws that give greater rights to workers.
The current proposal under review is the Contract Labor Law, which would address some of the pervasive problems faced by workers, such as non-payment of wages, failure to remit severance pay, excessive over-time, and short-term contracts. The new law would increase penalties on employers and slightly strengthen the hand of the official trade union in representing workers' interests. Hopefully the penalties will be large enough to make a dent in these common practices.
The law has been the subject of intense debate, as the American and European Chambers of Commerce have fiercely opposed it. Multi-national corporations (MNCs) such as Google, UPS and Microsoft, asserted that the new law would restrict their freedoms too much, and force them to withdraw capital from China. However, Liu Cheng and others have worked with labor activists in other countries, such as Tim Costello, Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith in the US (click HERE to read), and Anita Chan in Australia, to get the word out about how the corporations have tried to derail the new law. In response, European unions organized and got the European Chamber to back off. In addition, a few U.S. multi-nationals have distanced themselves as well. Still, the American Chamber opposes the new law, and continues to lobby against it.
Professor Liu notes that some MNCs oppose the new "hard law" (legally binding, enforceable by the state) because they say they can accomplish the same protections through other mechanisms, such as corporate social responsibility (CSR). But this won't work, argues Professor Liu. Corporations can't be trusted to improve conditions for workers on their own. CSR is not only not helpful, but possibly dangerous, as it promotes the idea that hard law is not necessary.
This debate opens an important opportunity for US labor unions to demonstrate their solidarity with Chinese workers. Workers in unionized MNCs should be pushing their employers directly to stay out of the debate over Chinese labor law. This is important for at least two reasons. First, if US unions want to do what they can to help Chinese workers create more space to organize and improve their rights, lessening the pressures coming from foreign capital is a major step.
Second, the issue relates to debate over the role of hard law versus soft law. As the labor movement pushes for labor law reform here in the US, in the form of the Employee Free Choice Act, it should be clear that there are similarities faced by workers in China and the US. Workers in both countries need strong labor law, plus the ability to enforce that law through the state and through workers' organizations. While consumer pressure can play a role in worker struggles, in no place should it be the primary mechanism to improve standards.
Third, US unions need to do a better job at learning to challenge their employers. While workers and organizers aren't so afraid to challenge the boss during a unionization campaign, that confrontational stance usually disappears quickly after a contract is won. Why? In part, unions feel limited in what they can legally do while under a contract. Also, workers and their unions often feel loyalty to their employer, in the sense that their well-being is tied to the well-being of the corporation. This can lead to workers taking nationalist positions, siding with employers, over supporting workers in other countries. It can also lead to complacent, inactive unions. But the reality is that workers need to continue to organize in the workplace: in China, and in the US. Having a union is important, but isn't enough. Workers also have to be organized and have the power to get laws and contracts enforced. That means a willingness to take on the employer in your own struggles but also in solidaristic struggles, whether its with workers in the same town or across national borders.
Stephanie Luce is a professor at UMASS-Amherst. She is also a member of the CLR Working Group on Solidarity Education