China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.
4 February 2013
BEIJING – Manufacturing giant Foxconn, a Taiwanese firm that makes the iPhone, iPad and other Apple products in China, plans to offer its huge workforce greater representation in trade unions dominated by company management and Communist party functionaries.
The announcement comes as Foxconn has found itself dealing with an increasingly restive work force that has complained publicly about working conditions.
Several workers at Foxconn, mainland China's largest private-sector employer with 1.5 million workers, committed suicide in 2009-2010 at the vast factory complexes where employees both live and work.
The company has faced several incidents of worker unrest since then, plus an embarrassing admission of hiring underage workers.
In a statement Monday, the firm pledged to allow factory-floor workers to elect their own trade union representatives in a process free of management involvement. The move appears a significant and potentially influential recognition of growing worker power in a country whose ruling Communist Party tightly controls all other organizations.
But several labor analysts doubt both Foxconn's resolve to engage fairly with their employees and the Chinese authorities' willingness to end their strict, decades-old ban on independent trade unions.
After the U.S.-based Fair Labor Association reviewed Foxconn's operations last year at Apple's request, Foxconn "is introducing measures to enhance employee representation in the Foxconn Labor Union and to raise employees' awareness of the organization," said the statement.
"All Foxconn campuses have been carrying out elections to increase the number of junior employee representative positions. The management is not involved in any aspect of this election process," it said.
The company hopes the reforms will "lift the standards and practices for our industry in China."
The whole show "may be window dressing", says Wang Kan, a lecturer at the China Institute of Industrial Relations in Beijing, but he prefers to call it "a significant and unprecedented development in New China's history."
Foxconn gives workers "more than the law requires and far more than the average company in China," said Wang. "But the workers, especially the younger, skilled ones, require more. They don't just want money, but human dignity, too."
In China, trade unions are controlled by the central government's All China Federation of Trade Unions, a ministry-like bureau that ensures that leadership of branches right down to the grass roots remains in safe, party-friendly hands.
If Foxconn holds democratic elections, "it's an encouraging first step but only the first step of many to realize a fully functional trade union," said Geoffrey Crothall, communications director for the non-profit China Labour Bulletin, based in Hong Kong.
"The key point is not whether or not they have elections but whether or not those elected representatives can do what they are supposed to do -- namely, bargain with management for improved pay and conditions for their employees," he said.
Foxconn management follows a "very hierarchical and authoritarian structure; all orders are passed down from the top, the workers are simply told what to do and must obey," said Crothall. Yet, change is inevitable, "as officials have no choice," he said.
"They must respond to a more restive workforce, more aware of their rights, more aspirational, younger, no longer prepared to accept the exploitation their parents did," he said. "They want decent pay for decent work."
Foxconn's move aims to create "a new balance in the relationship between worker and management," said Liu Kaiming, founder of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, based in Shenzhen, a non-governmental organization,
"According to law, trade unions should be elected by the members, but the law is only lying on paper, it's not for action," he said. "It's too early to have independent trade unions; people don't know how to run them, and they are not allowed."
In a highly representative, non-sensitive move, China's trade union authorities announced last month that they would donate $638 million during Chinese New Year visits to needy workers.
"Many trade union chairmen in Guangdong told me they want to solve the present conflicts, and help workers and solve conflicts, but they are all party members, and many trade unions are half independent, half official. There are rules to restrict a chairman's management, by the party and government," said Guangzhou labor lawyer Tao Zhengde, appealing for steady progress and one principle.
"A real trade union must be independent, like in some western countries, it must really represent workers' rights," he said.
Contributing: Sunny Yang