With a workforce of more than one million, the electronics giant Foxconn has enough workers in its Chinese factories to fill a small country. So it’s fitting that the company has vowed to make its manufacturing kingdom a bit more democratic by encouraging union elections.
But although the company announced its push for union democracy in February, a subsequent study by academics in Hong Kong and mainland China reveals that many workers don’t even know whether they’re in a union, and many others don’t have a clear idea of what their union does or how it works. And that actually makes perfect sense, since China’s unions are ill-defined, bureaucratized institutions –politically ineffective by design.
The union plan is part of a host of promised reforms that followed public scrutiny of Foxconn’s premiere client, Apple. The Apple brand has come under fire from advocacy groups and the media for profiting from the exploitation of young Foxconn workers – underscored by a series of employee suicides stretching from 2010 to just a few weeks ago.
As Working In These Times noted when the plan was announced in February, the idea of “democratizing” unions at Foxconn should be viewed skeptically since official unions are linked to the state-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which tends to collude with employers in ignoring or suppressing autonomous labor action.
While labor movements in many regions, including the U.S. and Europe, face a tension between militant labor activism and “cooperative” union structures based on “partnership” with management, in a non-democratic nation like China, where unions are aligned with the government, activism and the official unions are fundamentally at odds. As many activists and reporters have pointed out, the most critical strikes and protests in recent years have been illegal and unsanctioned—many of them spontaneous wildcat strikes that sprung up out of frustration with management. Such unrest is precisely what the ACFTU is designed to pre-empt and contain, not foster. Read the rest of this entry →