Trade unions help protect workers' rights

Almost every Chinese has heard of a trade union, but few could tell what it is about. And it's kidding if someone says that the major function of a trade union is organizing outings or giving free film tickets to its members.

But now, more and more people, especially industrial workers, are coming to realize that trade unions could bring them much more benefits than merely giving them free film tickets, at a time when trade unions have a louder say in settling labor disputes and protecting their rights and interests.

As the 14th National Congress of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the only legitimate umbrella trade union in China, is to open on Monday, workers nationwide are expecting that the congress will further heighten the role of trade unions in an increasingly market-oriented economy.

For nearly 30 years after New China was founded in 1949, the country had adopted a strict pattern of planned economy, under which workers enjoyed from-craddle-to-grave benefits provided by the government, including free housing and medical care.

There were even not much differences in wages between and a worker and a factory manager, hence the phrase "labor disputes" were seldom mentioned.

However, the planned economy, featuring low efficiency of enterprises, brought the country's economy on the brink of collapse, together with some other factors.

Since the late 1970s, China has ushered in the policy of reformand opening-up, with the planned economy gradually giving way to amarket-oriented one, under which even state-owned enterprises haveto compete for survival.

Meanwhile, private and foreign-funded enterprises are mushrooming across the country.

As market competition intensified, many state-owned enterprises were shut down or restructured, resulting in the laying off a large number of workers. Official figures indicated that workers in state-owned enterprises now only account for a quarter of the country's labor force.

And in private or foreign-funded enterprises, the infringements of worker's rights and interests are also increasing.

"It is natural more and more labor disputes occur as managers and workers each are pursuing maximum profits and benefits of their own," said Zhao Jianjie, a professor with the Beijing-based China Labor College.

"Under such circumstances, trade unions could play a unique role in helping settle labor disputes and maintaining social stability," he said.

Facts also showed that since its l3th national congress in 1998, Chinese trade unions have done a lot in protecting members' rights and interests and streamlining labor relations.

The trade unions have strongly advocated and participated in the drafting of 1,264 laws and regulations on protecting workers' rights and interests, including law on trade unions, safe production and labor contract.

More than 2,000 grass-root trade unions nationwide have set up law service agencies to help members settle labor disputes with their employers.

Trade unions at various levels have also established more than 6,000 centers of vocational training and helped over 3 million laid-off workers get re-employed.

Meanwhile, the number of grass-root trade unions has jumped to 1.7 million from 510,000, with trade unions members surging to 134 million from no more than 1 million.

Zhao said that the government had realized the importance of trade unions ever since the beginning of the market-oriented reform, and taken various measures to support them.

However, Chinese trade unions are facing formidable challenges ahead, and they must learn how to best protect workers' rights and interest under changed conditions, especially after China joined the World Trade Organization.

"One of the effective ways is to push the reform of trade union's operation system," he said, explaining that trade union leaders are receiving wages from their employers, which could neutralize their role in settling labor disputes.

"I hope the coming 14 national congress will find a better way in improving trade unions' work, especially in protecting rights and interests of the members," he said.

At a preparatory meeting for the congress earlier this month, ACFTU Chairman Wang Zhaoguo also urged trade unions nationwide to give top priority to protecting the rights and interests of workers, noting that it is their top responsibility.



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