Trade unions in China are facing increased pressure from below to reform, as more workers have come to the recognition that a union that truly represents their interests is vital to their rights and protection.

Jennifer Zhang Asia, China,

By Jennifer Cheung

Trade unions in China are facing increased pressure from below to reform, as more workers have come to the recognition that a union that truly represents their interests is vital to their rights and protection.

Sumida workers in negotiation with government inspectors

Sumida workers in negotiation with government inspectors. Photo credit: Sumida union broadcast group on Weibo.


The latest example is the female workers at the Japanese owned Sumida, a factory making electronic and auto devices in Panyu, Guangdong province. Since last September, more than 1,000 female workers started to demand a reasonable pay increase, as well as their legal pension which the factory failed to pay since 2002. However, workers who were active in their struggle soon faced various types of retaliation. The workers’ struggle in 2013 led to the firing of over 60 worker representatives and activists. Workers also mentioned in their weibo that worker activists got demoted to positions where their pay was far less than before and claimed the factory even restricted the number of times worker activists could go to the bathroom and talk to their colleagues.

The law enforcement agencies were not very helpful in addressing the factory’s misconduct nor redressing workers’ grievances. According to the workers’ account, they filed their complaint to the local inspection department in April, but two months later, the local inspectors simply responded that they will not accept the complaint. Consequently, workers could not help but ask: was it the government’s negligence that led to the factory’s evasion of their legal responsibility to pay for the workers social insurance?

All those above mentioned obstacles prompted workers to come up with the idea of setting up a factory union that could defend their rights and protect their leaders from retaliation.

“We strongly want to set up a Sumida trade union, join the union and gain the legal status to negotiate with our boss and protect workers representatives,” said workers on weibo. “Trade union is our only option now. Once the trade union is set up, it will represent workers. Whenever workers have grievances or demands, we will not face the boss alone. We can tell the union, and the union will solve the problems for us.”

On 21 April, several worker activists came to the local street-level trade union to apply for this factory level union. Unsurprisingly their enthusiasm encountered an indifferent response from the union officer: “My boss is not here. We can only handle your application when my boss is back.”

Workers were not discouraged but quickly changed their strategy. One month later, workers started asking for support from the municipal-level union. In their open letter to the municipal-level union, workers complained the difficulties imposed by both the street-level union and the factory, and cited China’s Trade Union Law, Labour Law, and the corresponding implementation guidelines in Guangdong as their legal ground to have their own union.

“The street-level union not only did not help us establish a union inside the factory, but also advised us not to ‘make trouble’… The factory did not provide necessary company information to facilitate our union application. Even worse, the factory has started to intimidate workers’ leaders. We sincerely hope the municipal-level union can assist us in setting up our own union inside the factory.”

Workers’ letter received no less attention from the municipal-level union, who, together with the provincial, district and street level unions, invited workers to a one-and-a-half hour meeting for a thorough understanding of the situation on 9 June. Workers were thrilled.

“Union officials used a car to pick us up from and send us back to the factory. As the meeting took place during lunch time, they also ordered lunch boxes for us… To give workers a comfortable environment to speak up, factory management were barred from partaking in this meeting… Workers were able to tell union officials all kinds of difficulties and obstacles we encountered to set up a union of our own… District-level union officials apologised to us that the past is the past, they will do a good job in future.”

However, even though the upper-level union officials gave a green light to the Sumida factory union, workers were soon disappointed by the union preparation team selected by the factory, half of which were senior management, including one HR director. The line-up was then approved by the street-level union. Workers were irritated again and immediately wrote another letter to the provincial, municipal and district level unions, demanding the municipal union to revoke the qualification of the new union preparation team, investigate the negligence of the street-level union, and provide support for workers to set up their own union preparation committee.

One week later, the municipal, district and street level unions held another talk with workers admitting the mistakes in the preparation team, but insisting the team cannot be dissolved.

During the ensuing union representative election in late June, although workers had the right to vote for union representatives, workers complained that they were being closely monitored before the election, and there was no supervision in the votes distribution, collection and counting process. What’s worse, the factory started to provide incentives for workers who are willing to ‘report’ and ‘take photos of’ worker activists, such as those who like ‘association’, and those whose fingerprints are seen on the petition letter. The factory will provide RMB50 as reward, or offer more ‘overtime’ opportunities for ‘whistleblowers’.

USI will continue to keep an eye on the latest update of Sumida workers’ effort in setting up a union of their own.


Jennifer Cheung is China coordinator of Union Solidarity International.



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Jennifer Zhang

Jennifer Zhang is USi’s China coordinator based in Hong Kong.

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