Unions in China still feeble, but gaining foothold
Most Fortune 500 companies operating there have agreed to let workers organize, but can expect little pushback from the state-controlled groups.
– Almost all the Fortune 500 companies in China will allow unions to open in their factories, according to union leaders who are wrapping up this week a 100-day campaign to organize workers in some of the world's largest corporations.Skip to next paragraph
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There are holdouts, such as Microsoft and pharmaceutical giant, Wyeth. But even they "don't dare say they will not set up unions," which would be illegal, says Wang Ying, a senior official with the state-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). "They are finding all kinds of excuses to put it off."
Many foreign firms see unions as an unnecessary hindrance, but even those that moved to China to escape unions "should not assume that just because unions are coming here, the sky is falling," says Jim Leininger, Beijing head of the US management consulting firm Watson Wyatt.
Though there are signs that some of them might be ready to try the sort of collective bargaining that is standard in Western countries, "they will not necessarily be confrontational as in the West," predicts Constance Thomas, head of the China office of the United Nations International Labor Organization.
Chinese enterprise-level unions, which have traditionally taken their cue from the government-controlled ACFTU, are among the most pliable in the world.
The union drive comes in the wake of pro-labor legislation on contracts and arbitration that the Chinese parliament has passed this year to strengthen employee rights, after decades of laissez faire investor-friendly policies.
The high-profile campaign to set up unions in more than 10,000 workplaces and cover 80 percent of the biggest foreign companies operating in China is "on track" to meet its targets, says Ms. Wang.
Wang is keen to dispel foreign misunderstandings about unions in China and regrets that it has been hard to organize in foreign-owned companies "because they equate their unions at home with unions here and they are very scared of them.
"Our purpose is to guarantee a win-win situation for companies and workers," Wang adds. "We coordinate labor relations, we don't fight against management."
Still there is much apprehension, says Chris Liu, a labor expert here with the US law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Many businesses think that if "management can make decisions unilaterally, that is better than having someone slow them down."
But almost all the Fortune 500 companies that have come under ACFTU pressure during the campaign have acceded because "they don't really have a choice," says Mr. Leininger.