China's Workers Unite, but Bosses Run the Unions

New York Times

By Joseph Kahn

SHENZHEN, China — The hall had all the trappings of a solemn political ceremony in Communist China, a dais with officials and executives in the seats of honor, ballot collectors and ballot counters, and a big red banner that announced a "democratic union election."

Liao Yuanxin, the local chief of the government's All-China Federation of Trade Unions, listed candidates to represent workers of Neil Pryde, a foreign-run sportswear factory. For union committee member: two workers and two company managers. For vice chairman: the human resources director. For chairman: Huang Hongguang, a top factory boss.

Left off the dais, and off the list, was Liu Youlin, a dogged 29-year-old clothing cutter who had campaigned, petitioned and agitated until officials agreed to set up the union. But according to his account and those of other workers present, he made himself heard.

"I object to the factory manager being named head of the union," Mr. Liu shouted from the floor, interrupting Mr. Liao's address. "A boss cannot represent workers."

When the vote proceeded anyway, fellow workers protested by denying the requisite 50 percent majority to all but the two worker candidates, rendering the new union leaderless — and effectively stillborn.

Mr. Liu's struggle to unionize workers at Neil Pryde, a leading maker of sailing and windsurfing gear sold globally under its own name and for brands like Quiksilver and Billabong, is emblematic of the battle workers are waging to earn basic rights in China's fast-growing export industries. China's socialist laws theoretically protect workers even as the country embraces capitalist ways. But the police crush efforts to set up independent unions as threats to the Communist Party.

Many workers say the sole legal state-run union is a charade, a feckless bureaucracy that has only the pretense of representing the proletariat.

"Local authorities sacrifice workers for investors," said Mr. Liu, a migrant who has worked at the Neil Pryde factory for seven years. "They do not respect or enforce the laws."

Mr. Liao and other union officials in Bao An, the Shenzhen district where Neil Pryde's factory is, declined numerous requests to discuss the issue. Company executives said that they planned to establish a union but added that such things move slowly in China. They said having a factory manager serve as head of the union complied with the law, though workers disputed that.

"In China you must take things step by step," said Ringo S. Y. Li, a senior factory official. "It will not happen overnight, but we are moving in the right direction."

Some 20 years after it began attracting billions of dollars in foreign investment, Shenzhen and the surrounding province of Guangdong have become the world's largest and most dynamic manufacturing center, making everything from shoes to Sony PlayStations. But the region's success depends on an endless turnover of migrants from the hinterland, who rarely become full local residents and are effectively prohibited from bargaining for a share of the profits.

Although all Chinese and foreign companies with more than 100 employees are required by law to open a branch of the national union, company executives acknowledge that they generally ignore that rule. Those that do set up a union often do so in name only, putting managers in charge and rarely if ever holding meetings that include workers.

As least partly as a result, working conditions here have improved only marginally. Most migrants live behind high factory walls in crowded dormitories. They often work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Local recruitment centers are packed with workers who quit jobs in exhaustion or were fired when their employer had a dip in orders.

Though Guangdong has maintained a double-digit rate of economic growth during the past decade, wages for migrant workers, adjusted for inflation, have fallen during the same period, according to research by the Institute of Contemporary Observation in Shenzhen. Base pay often falls below legal minimums, and overtime hours often greatly exceed regulated maximums.

Mr. Liu's story resembles that of many peasant workers. He dropped out of high school in rural Hubei Province, north of the Yangtze River, and traveled to Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, in the mid-1990's. He needed a job to support his family of rice farmers.. Unlike many others he gained confidence over time, and he began pushing to improve conditions at Neil Pryde, where he became a technical worker and expert cutter on the wet-suit assembly line.

Neil Pryde is run by a New Zealander of the same name, a sailing enthusiast whose Hong Kong-based company has made yacht sails and sports gear in China since 1989. The company's two Shenzhen plants employ about 2,000 workers.

Mr. Liu and many other workers interviewed described the working conditions as comparatively decent. All of them said they had legal contracts, assuring steady employment during the contract term. The pay generally meets minimum wage. But workers say some departments operate 100 hours a week with one shift of employees, leading to burnout. Pension benefits and annual bonuses were scaled back recently to cut costs, workers said. Each dorm room houses 10 workers in five bunks, 18 rooms to a floor, 180 workers to a bathroom, leading to long lines — and sometimes to fights — at the end of the evening shift.

Mr. Li, the manager assigned to answer questions, said he did not have enough information to respond to specific complaints and did not reply to a detailed fax on the subject. But he said the company abided by all labor laws and paid wages "above the average in the area."

Mr. Liu said his complaints went beyond daily concerns. He asked what the government was doing to defend the interests of its own citizens before foreign investors, who, to his eye, were making big profits off his work.

"I could work at this factory for 20 years and it would be the same," he said. "There's no chance here to rise up and become a manager. I felt like we needed to be treated like a real workers, not like migrants with no rights."

During meal breaks and after 11 p.m., between the end of his nightly overtime and lights out, Mr. Liu read. He read local newspapers. He read Marx. He read extensively about Liu Shaoqi, a Chinese labor leader who became Mao's selected successor before being purged in the 1960's. And he began using revolutionary terms like fan shen, which means to turn the tables against oppressors.

One day in late 2001, he read an article about China's revised labor law. It said foreign companies must have a branch of the national labor union. Neil Pryde had no union.

A short time later he walked into the labor union's district office and met Mr. Liao. He said he was greeted cordially and handed an armful of legal books, application forms and union promotion materials. Better yet, Mr. Liu said, Mr. Liao assured him that he would negotiate with the company. He said that the union would organize a free election and that workers would be encouraged to participate fully.

"He was really welcoming and friendly," Mr. Liu recalled. "We had confidence in his promise."

He started handing out union materials to workers. He reassured colleagues who were nervous about offending management. "The union is not only legal, it's legally required," he said he told fellow workers. Campaigning seemed to suit him.

Mr. Liu has a boyishly handsome face and a buoyant hairstyle that stays well coiffed even after long hours on the assembly line. Workers seemed to trust him. When the union office asked for a formal petition from at least 20 workers, Mr. Liu produced 182 signatures instead. He adopted an election platform: more hot water, more shower heads, 8 workers to a room instead of 10, a karaoke machine. Workers say he made himself popular by intervening to solve problems, like helping a laid-off worker collect back pay.

But months passed without any notice about the union. Mr. Liu repeatedly phoned Mr. Liao and often visited his office. The reception grew cooler. Eventually, he was treated as a nuisance and told not to call or visit anymore. Factory officials also grew wary. Managers warned him to stop talking about the union during work hours. "They said I was disrupting production," Mr. Liu said.

But he did not stop. Instead, he appealed to higher authorities in the district and city governments. He enlisted the support of a labor delegate in the Shenzhen branch of the National People's Congress. He wrote lawyerly letters to officials and labor experts he read about in newspapers.

Whether any of those people intervened is unknown. But in September, roughly two years after he raised the issue, the factory posted a notice of a pending union election.

It initially looked like a victory. But when the details emerged, it was clear that union officials and management had skipped the nominating process. Two workers were given a place on the ballot, but Mr. Liu was excluded. The rest of handpicked candidates were managers, including Mr. Huang, the only nominee for chairman.

Mr. Liu protested with more calls and office visits. He cited Article 11 of the "Method for Implementing the P.R.C. Trade Union Law," which came into force on Aug. 27 of this year in Shenzhen. It says, "The chairperson and vice chairpersons of trade unions cannot concurrently be the corporate legal representative or any other principal official of the enterprise."

His appeals were rejected, however, and the election proceeded. It was held on a Saturday afternoon in mid-October. Participants had to request time off without pay.

Given the predetermined slate and the loss of income, only 109 of the 900 employees at the factory attended. Mr. Liu was one of them.

When he repeated his objection publicly, disrupting the carefully scripted ceremony, Mr. Liao seemed prepared. The official stepped off the podium and escorted Mr. Liu to a private room. There, Mr. Liu recalled, he was told that the election procedure "was fair and according to law." He said he was warned that further interruptions would be treated "as interference with a democratic election."

Workers said they retaliated the only way they could, by handing in blank ballots or selecting only worker-candidates. Mr. Huang, though he faced no rival for his post, did not muster a majority.

After a long hiatus, a grim-faced Mr. Liao read the results. Mr. Huang, sitting next to him on the podium, said nothing and left immediately, workers recalled. Some in the crowd giggled, and many burst into applause. But it was a short-lived celebration.

Two months after the aborted election, the union issue is once again off the agendas of the factory and the government. "

We defeated their idea of a union," Mr. Liu said. "But now we have to begin again."