Toothless model unions fail to counterpoise labour relations
Two surveys show that workers' rights in Shenzhen exist only on paper

 “Trade union? What trade union?” is the first reaction workers give when they are asked about trade unions. In 2012, the Shenzhen Municipal Trade Union (hereafter “Shenzhen AMFTU”) launched a campaign to reform trade union election at the factory-level. Unfortunately, recent surveys show that the goal of union democratization is far from realization. In October 2013, a student-led research team publicized a report on the implementation of direct elections at factories considered to have model unions which were referred by Shenzhen AMFTU. It shows that fewer than 17% of workers know what a union is (see Table One). The report also suggests that trade unions exist mainly for window-dressing, instead of protecting workers’ rights. Another recent questionnaire survey also calculates that, in Shenzhen, one out of five workers is involved with large-scale industrial action, a sign that workers' awareness of their labour rights has developed significantly over the past few years.

While the two surveys both point out that employers tend to ignore labour laws, it has become a trend that workers take collective actions to safeguard their rights, as the trade union and labour law both fail to protect them.


Table One:

Factory interviewed

Trade union operation

Workers who know what a union is (%)

Workers who know of their union membership (%)


Union office



Batar Jewelery

Not seen

Recreational activities are often provided




Epson Engineering

Yes but not accessible

No mailbox or hotline




Fuqun Electronics

Not seen

Presents are offered at festivals, trips are organized




Meigao Plastic


No welfare or recreational activities




Gaoxinqi Technology

Yes but not accessible

Some recreational activities but are only hosted during work hours








Link to the report (in Chinese)




Small-circle election, union chairperson appointed

Some university students formed a trade union research team and posed as workers to work in five factories, which had been covered by media or recognized as “model unions” by the ACFTU. They conducted 221 interviews, with a focus on trade union elections and operation, as well as workers' rights. Their research shows that union elections were corrupt and working conditions in those five factories disappointing (see Table Two). Apart from providing some recreational activities and presents (see Table One), none of the five unions had daily operation and considered safeguarding workers' rights as out of their mandate. 


Table Two:

A picture of a worker with a label of “interviewer”

1 Basic wages (RMB/month) during July and August 2013

2. Working hours/day

3. Working hours/day


Batar Jewelery


Lower than legal minimum wages(Legal minimum wages in  Shenzhen is 1,600 Yuan)


10-14, the longest successive shift is 48 hours




Epson Engineering


1,714 (dispatched workers)         2,550 (formal workers)


36 hours of overtime per month


Fuqun Electronics





Meigao Plastic

1. Lower than legal minimum wages


3. 26-30


Gaoxinqi Technology




12 hours shift at peak season  




Among the five factory unions, Batar Jewelery's is considered to be the showcase union.  In 2012, it received recognition as a "Model enterprise of harmonious labour relations, Guangdong Province”. Yet the research shows that the so-called direct election was substandard and corrupt. Workers who witnessed the election reported that most voters were new workers who were directed by their department heads to vote. “The election was on third floor, the factory allowed us to go. The union chairperson is called Ren or something like that, he was giving a speech there, wore glasses and was a postgraduate.”  “Ren has worked here for only one year, he is the executive manager of the hydraulic plant and a postgraduate. A trade union chairperson should have high academic qualification and only a postgraduate is qualified!"  Workers' reflections hint that they are not familiar with their new chairperson and only vote under the instruction of the factory managers. Another senior staff who was asked to vote, explained that “mostly they [voters] were new workers because they didn't work overtimes. I didn't want to go but I had no other tasks that day.” His attitude also shows workers are not aware that a trade union is to protect workers' rights, and by voting for trade union officials, workers get a representative to speak out for them, and the latter should be accountable to them, instead of representing the factory's interests.


Batar Jewelry’s election is already the “better example”, as workers can at least recall the procedure. Workers from the other four factories were neither included in the election, nor recall if any election had taken place.


Photo one: award plaques of trade union, filmed at meeting room of Batar's factory complex


Workers are instructed to tell lies at inspections

In Meigao Plastic, another factory being investigated, workers recalled that they had been given some model answers for a factory inspection in early 2013, to make sure the factory would pass the labour inspections. For example, when asked if a union exists, the workers must say “yes”; “to resolve workers' difficulties” is the standard answer for “the role of a union” and they have to memorize that “Mr Peng is the union chairperson.” Workers added, “we would get a prize if we said everything right. If we fail to say it as instructed by the factory, it is considered as a major mistake and 180 Yuan would be deducted from our wages.”


Longgang District Trade Union's website also has uploaded a photo of Meigao Plastic' election, the caption says “Enterprise owner of Meigao Plastic passed the union stamp to the newly elected chairperson” (Photo Two). Yet, why was the enterprise owner, instead of the union committee from the previous term, keeping the union stamp? We could only conclude that the management was indeed controlling the union election, as in Batar's example.


Photo Two: Enterprise leader of Meigao Plastic passed the union stamp to the newly elected chairperson


Shenzhen penetrated by yellow unions, worker remain helpless

The Shenzhen Firefly Workers' Services Centre released another survey on 17 December 2013. Questionnaires collected from over 50 factories in Shenzhen show that less than a quarter (24.1%) of workers know of the existence of their factory unions. In other words, fewer than 3 out of 10 workers can identify their own union when they need help. The same survey also confirms that even the so-called “model unions” are controlled by the enterprises and could not deliver justice to workers. Desperately, workers could only take collective action to safeguard their rights and it has been going on for decades.


Shenzhen factories: Labour rights violations on daily basis

The survey shows that in general, factories refuse to provide workers social security as required by labour law (it includes five types of insurance and one fund, namely pension, labour insurance, medical insurance, unemployment insurance, maternity insurance and housing fund). From only 2% of workers are offered maternity insurance to lower than 60% (58.7%) are protected by medical insurance, we can see that the scale of violation is severe (see Table Three). Based the recently-revised Labour Contract Law, employers are prohibited to deduct wages as a mean of penalty. Yet, more than 40% workers reflect that their factories have deducted their wages as penalty.

Table Three: Social Security Insurance Coverage of Workers





Labour Injury








Housing fund


None of them




(The statistics are provided by The Shenzhen Firefly Workers' Services Centre. The executive summary of its report can be downloaded here


Half of interviewees with less than five years' work experience and 20% involved in collective industrial actions

The survey also identifies an increase of labour conflicts. While nearly half (49%) of the interviewees have worked less than five years, more than 20% (22.6%) have been in factories with collective industrial actions. In other words, every one of five workers have been involved in a collective action to safeguard workers' rights. It tells us that there is a lack of trust between workers and enterprises, when the current consultation mechanism has failed and legal procedures cannot effectively resolve labour disputes.


Strengthening workers' awareness of their collective rights and organizing skills

The ACFTU's failure to realize union democratization has disappointed many of us. A trade union should be an organization owned and run by the workers, instead of controlled by the management. As we have seen from the Shenzhen ACFTU's model unions, the enterprise-controlled unions do not put workers' interests on their agenda. Further, while workers' awareness of their rights has increased, the union finds new ways to suppress their militancy.