Migrant Workers Fight for Their Wages -- Now Sometimes with ACFTU Help

February 3, 2005

As China’s migrant workers look forward to traveling home for the Lunar New Year festival, a perennial issue arises: whether or not they can collect their earnings. In an unusual move, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), China's only official union federation, has begun to assist migrant workers with their back pay problems. According to an article from Asian Labour News the ACFTU has established 1,763 aid centers for legal services and job training. The Federation also plans to send 15 ACFTU official teams to towns and cities to distribute some US $4.2 million in cash and other types of aid to needy workers.

But Chinese workers still struggle with some ACFTU branches, to try to force them to help obtain back pay and insurance. China Labour Bulletin reports that 83 workers in Chongqing filed a dispute about overtime wages and social insurance with the local arbitration committee, which required a 210,00 Yuan fee to hear the case. The local branch of the ACFTU refused to assist them, and after two requests were rebuffed, the migrant workers filed suit against the union for breach of statutory duty.

The ACFTU apparently is trying to increase its membership base, to replace losses resulting from the closure of state owed manufacturing enterprises. Workers in the state owned sector long had been enrolled automatically in ACFTU affiliated unions. Chinese news media now often report that new workers are joining official unions, see, e.g., an Asia Labour News article quoting a Beijing Daily reporting that 750,000 migrants joined the Beijing Federation of Trade Unions. This report says, however, that the unions were established "for" the migrant workers. This report seems suspect, as the ACFTU has never developed a cadre of union organizers to recruit members.

Neil Gough, writing for China Labour Watch points out that the Pearl River Delta currently faces a labor shortage, which has given workers more leverage to organize themselves. Workers at factories in Shenzhen and Panyu, for example, gained increases in pay and promises of back pay after the workers organized brief strikes. Gough expects more such clashes, and even arrests, as workers head home for the holidays, but he quotes one worker as saying: "..you just can't jail everybody."