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Foxconn’s labour union elections put Chinese workers' rights under the spotlight

Apple’s China-based contractor, Foxconn, is following a trend of increasing unionisation at transnational corporations in China by holding its first-ever democratic labour union elections. As reported…

Foxconn will hold its first-ever democratic labour union election but freedom of association in China remains limited. AAP Pictures

Apple’s China-based contractor, Foxconn, is following a trend of increasing unionisation at transnational corporations in China by holding its first-ever democratic labour union elections.

As reported by the International Trade Union Confederation in 2012, branches of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions have been established for Chinese operations of Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Motorola and Samsung.

Since reports of worker suicides in 2009 and 2010, there has been scrutiny of employment practices at Foxconn, which owns three companies manufacturing Apple products. In 2012, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an independent organisation which monitors labour standards on behalf of over thirty transnational corporations, found multiple violations of labor standards included in the FLA’s Workplace Code of Conduct. One of the actions recommended by the FLA was to conduct more democratic union elections and eliminate management dominance from the union, strengthening workers’ rights to freedom of association.

Under Chinese law, workers are not free to join the union of their choice, and unionisation is heavily regulated by the state. However, under the 2008 Rainbow Plan, the Chinese government has encouraged greater unionisation and collective bargaining, including in transnational corporations operating in China. The atmosphere is therefore more positive for unionisation. The FLA’s 2012 report criticised Foxconn’s practices as contrary to both Chinese and international law. Its recommendations on making Foxconn’s unions more representative encourage the company to follow new, local regulations.

China remains an outsider to most of the international treaties, which guarantee freedom of association and union rights. It has signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but has declared that the right to form and join unions will be subject to the Chinese constitution and internal law. This reservation could effectively take away what the international treaty gives. China has been criticised within the United Nations for its failure to guarantee free unions, and several complaints against China have been brought to the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s Freedom of Association Committee.

The FLA’s Workplace Code of Conduct is based on ILO treaties, including those on freedom of association. Since China has not signed these treaties, it is understandable that the FLA grounded its criticism of Foxconn in Chinese as well as international law. This makes the recommendations more acceptable to Foxconn and to Chinese authorities, and therefore more likely to be followed. The recent announcement of democratic union elections demonstrates the success of the FLA’s strategy of blurring the difference between the requirements of Chinese and international law.

Poor labour practices at Foxconn have placed Apple under pressure. NGOs such as China Labor Watch and Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour publicised allegations of abuse of Foxconn employees, with a focus on Apple, Foxconn’s largest client. This publicity led Apple to appoint the FLA in early 2012 to audit Foxconn.

The FLA approach of linking international and Chinese law in its criticisms shifts the blame from the state to the company. The result, which could be repeated in other Chinese contractors to transnational corporations, is acceptance of stronger freedom of association standards. The method of maintaining commitment to international standards while masking them as internal law is a strategy worth adopting more widely. Even if China refuses to sign human rights treaties protecting freedom of association, a bit of creative thinking can make practical improvements to working conditions and access to union representation possible.

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3 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    a baby step in the right direction...........

    i know unions get a bad rap from many australians, but its easy to forget the historical importance of unions to working men & women.

    china is on the road to a new paradigm in so many areas, and it will be fascinating to be at arms length to watch the journey. And in a somewhat ironic twist, whilst china rises, the US falls - the interplay of these two great cultures is a delicious theatre of the ebb and flow of civilisations.

    i'm not saying the US is finished in any way shape or form, but the glory days are slowing ebbing away as another player takes to thefront of the stage.

    i can almost hear the history crackling & sizzling.

    1. Tim Niven
      Tim Niven is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Chinese Student and EFL Teacher at Tzu Chi University, Hualien City, Taiwan

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      History is easily forgotten. But some countries seem stuck in a different time period, and can be quite illustrative. Just a couple of years ago, Colombian sugar cane cutters won Sunday off through union struggle (yes, a six day week - hooray!). Their days are still long, they're still thrown on the junk heap if they get injured, tough sh!t to them if they're too weak, their family can just starve - but they've managed to get one day off a week, the greedy communists. I imagine it's simply intolerable…

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Tim Niven

      in many respects we live in a fools a brutal world out there. But then again its been thus since man/woman lit the fire.

      politicians of some persuasions and many employers feel the need to be at war with unions and their reps. sure there are the unionists that abuse their prerogative, but by and large they are their for their constituents well-being. more than you can say for some pollies in the public arena.