Failures of Enterprise-Level Unionization in China: Implications for Coalmine Safety and Beyond
Liu, Chaojie, International Labour Review
In recent years, China's frequent coalmining accidents have highlighted legislative defects that disable enterprise unions from exercising their statutory functions effectively in regard to occupational safety. The causes of this dysfunction have much wider implications, however. Reviewing the country's Trade Union Law, the author argues for amendments to empower workers to set up genuine enterprise-level unions - by clarifying the procedures for doing so, excluding senior corporate executives from union membership and leadership, securing unions' financial independence from enterprise management, providing safeguards for the election of trade union leaders and their removal from office, and recognizing the right to strike.
In recent years, much of the criticism over the frequent occurrence of mining disasters in China has been leveled at the country's trade unions: "Why does the trade union keep silent in mine disasters?",1 "Where is the trade union in the Zuoyun mine disaster?",2 "Why did the trade union say nothing after the mine disaster?",3 "Where is the trade union in mine disasters?",4 etc. The media are indeed replete with such criticism, holding the trade unions responsible for failing to protect the occupational safety of mineworkers.
This article examines the statutory rights and duties of China's trade unions in regard to the prevention of industrial accidents, why they are unable to exercise those rights effectively, and how they could be institutionally empowered to do so. In the process, however, it raises broader issues regarding the establishment and operation of trade unions at the enterprise level.
The statutory role of trade unions in the prevention of industrial accidents
According to article 6 of the Trade Union Law of the People's Republic of China, "[t]he basic duties and functions of trade unions are to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of workers and staff".5 Since the right to life and health is obviously a precondition of the enjoyment of all other workers' rights, the protection of their occupational safety and health is arguably the most important mission of the trade unions. Indeed, the Trade Union Law explicitly provides for trade union rights and duties where an enterprise fails to provide adequate work safety and health conditions:
Article 22. ...[t]he trade union shall, on behalf of the workers and staff members, make representations to the enterprise or institution and demand that it take measures for rectification; the enterprise or institution shall review and handle the matter, and give a reply to the trade union; if the enterprise or institution refuses to make rectification, the trade union may apply to the local people's government for a decision according to law. . .
Article 23. Trade unions shall, in accordance with State regulations, see to it that the working conditions and occupational safety and health facilities for enterprises under construction or expansion and for technological transformation projects are designed, built and put into operation or use simultaneously with the main parts of projects. The enterprises or the competent departments shall give serious consideration to the opinions put forth by the trade unions, and inform the trade unions of the results of their consideration in writing.
Article 24. When the trade union finds that the enterprise gives a command contrary to the established rules and compels workers to operate under unsafe conditions, or when major hidden dangers and occupational hazards are identified in the course of production, the trade union shall have the right to put forward proposals for a solution, and the enterprise shall, without delay, consider the proposals and give a reply to the trade union. Where the very lives of the workers and staff members are found to be in danger, the trade union shall have the right to make a proposal to the enterprise that a withdrawal of the workers and staff members from the dangerous site be organized, and the enterprise shall make a decision promptly. …