Interview with Dr Chris Chan, Assistant Professor of
Department of Applied Social Studies, City University of Hong Kong

Experts' views


Interview with Dr Chris Chan, Assistant Professor of Department of Applied Social Studies, City University of Hong Kong

Between 7 and 8 December 2013, an international conference on New Trends of China's Labour and Welfare Regimes in China: Theories and Practices was held at the City University of Hong Kong, with participation of about 100 academics, postgraduates, and labour organizers from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, USA, Australia, UK, Germany, Finland and France. Topics discussed at the conference included: trade union elections, labour relations and workers' autonomy, social policy, and workers’ welfare, as attendees exchanged research reports and had dialogue with grass-root labour NGOs. The host of this conference, Dr King-chi Chris Chan, has been organizing conferences regarding labour rights and labour relations in China in the past three years. Since the conference theme echoes this quarterly's headline, we are grateful that Dr Chan granted an interview, to learn his conclusions about new trends drawn from this conference, and his comments on the role of NGOs' in workers' organizing.


Q: Compared with the previous conferences in the past two years, this time you are talking about reform of union election, strikes, and collective bargaining in China. Have you noticed any new trends?


A: The previous conferences explored issues more on a theoretical level, while this time we discussed more of concrete practice and experience, which helps us get to a more realistic analysis. Yet, due to the restriction of the political structure, the promotion (of the three core labour rights) can only proceed very slowly and in limited ways, so I am not particularly optimistic.

Q: Can you tell us more about union elections? Is it as the student-led research described, are they simply paper unions?


A: In general, most of the elections are fake. Yet, we did come cross some cases where certain changes or breakthroughs took place. For example, in the Japanese-owned Ohms Electronics, grassroots representatives from different departments make up the backbone of the union, which motivates workers to become candidates and run for direct election. Yet, the leadership of the union, i.e. the committee members, are controlled by the upper-level ACFTU structures and management. You can call it democracy with Chinese characteristics. No matter whether it is elections of grassroots government leaders or trade union officers, the nomination is not open to all. This is a political structure problem, which I don't expect to change in the near future. Another phenomenon is that grassroots representatives are likely to have conflicts with the higher-ranked union committee members, as they tend to speak for workers' interests while the latter would have more contacts with the managers and senior members of the enterprises and tend to support the employer. Such internal tension within the union led workers' representatives to demand the dismissal of their union chairperson, or threatening to quit, as they feel their efforts were wasted.


Q: Under the new circumstances, what are the new strategies for labour organizations to intervene?


A: The mainland Chinese labour organizations are facing two major challenges. First, labour organizations in the past were more independent, while now it is common that the mainland local governments hand out funds to incorporate them, and only a few NGOs can maintain their independence. Moreover, if you look at their services to workers, the difference is not that significant (which puts the independent NGOs in an awkward position). The second challenge comes from their internal organizing. How to maintain an organization's democratic governance and secure internal stability, while they are largely depending on external resources? At the conference, many organizers shared their frustration. I would believe it is a transition that grass-root labour NGOs organize workers. The more important tasks are to push for the establishment of workers' groups, to raise their awareness and to spread the seed of self-organizing. In terms of resources, the labour organizations should look for more networks and support inside China, and people who are supportive of the labour movement.


Q: Strikes are getting common and there have been some changes in various mechanisms in past few years. However, the violations of labour rights occur on a daily basis; how do you make sense of this?


A: In general, the labour conditions in many sectors are still poor and law implementation ineffective. Yet, compared with a decade ago, you can see that some progress has been made. For example, the Social Insurance Law requires employers to provide one to two types of social insurance to workers (full coverage is five types of insurance and one fund: pension, work injury, medical, unemployment, maternity insurance and housing fund). Ten years ago, without such a law, most employers would not bother to provide them any. Also workers' awareness have been raised, they know how to complain and safeguard their rights, which also creates opportunities for NGOs.