China's top legislator Wu Bangguo on Friday urged local governments and trade unions to do their best to protect workers' legal rights after lawmakers voted for a labor contract law.
The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, on Friday adopted the labor contract law following the exposure of forced labor scandals in brick kilns in central and north China.
The law, which will come into effect on Jan. 1, 2008, won 145 of the 146 votes. One vote wasn't cast.
Governments and trade unions at all levels should do their best to publicize the law among workers and employers to better safeguard the rights of employees, Wu, NPC Standing Committee chairman, said when the Committee concluded its weeklong legislative session.
He said the law will regulate employers' use of labors and help employees protect their legal rights.
According to the law, officials will face administrative penalties or criminal prosecution for abusing their authority or neglecting their responsibilities that result in serious harm to the interests of workers.
Lawmakers lambasted officials involved in the forced labor scandals in north Shanxi Province and central Henan Province during their deliberation of the draft.
The forced labor scandals made headlines in China this month, sparking outrage among the Chinese public and arousing concern from national leaders. The workers were forced to work long hours without pay in brick kilns, mines and other small industries.
The central government has sent a team of investigators to look into the scandals.
Investigations reveal 2,036 brick kilns were operating without licenses and illegally used 53,036 migrant workers.
Latest official statistics showed that a total of 576 workers have been rescued from illegal brick kilns in Shanxi and Henan and the investigation and rescue work is still continuing.
By June 18, police have detained 168 people accused of holding workers in slavery under appalling conditions at small brick kilns and mines in Shanxi and Henan.
Xin Chunying, deputy chairwoman of the NPC Law Committee, said there have already been relevant laws, including the Criminal Law and the labor law, which could be applied to punish the employers and officials involved in the forced labor scandals.
"The labor contract law makes detailed provision concerning this issue following the exposure of the forced labor scandals," she told a press conference on Friday afternoon.
The draft was first submitted to the top legislature for deliberation in 2005 and released for public suggestions from March 20 to April 20 last year, which was regarded as a major step in the country's legislative transparency. More than 190,000 responses from the public were collected in a month.
The new law is expected to help protect workers' legal rights by demanding a written contract, Xin said.
Under the new law, if employers don't sign a written contract with their employees within a year after the employees start to work for them, it should be taken as that they have signed a labor contract of no fixed term.
"Employers should not force employees to work overtime and employees can terminate the contract without early notice to the employers if they are forced to work by violence, threat or restriction of personal freedom," the law reads.
Xin said such provisions will be useful when workers' interests are harmed.
However, some foreign companies worried the law would increase their cost when the draft was released for public suggestions, Xin said.
"But those who didn't have a record of illegal employment don't need to worry about the increase of cost at all," she said.
Xin also said it is unnecessary for foreign companies to worry over
bias in the application of the law.
"If there were some bias, it would be in favor of foreign investors because local governments have great tolerance for them in order to attract and retain investment," Xin said, adding that foreign companies must abide by the law just like their Chinese counterparts.
NPC Standing Committee member Zheng Gongcheng, an expert on labor law,said the labor contract law itself favors neither employees nor employers.
"As a law that gives full protection to workers' legal rights, it also stipulates that employees must shoulder equal duties, such as keeping confidential of the issues concerning employers' intellectual property rights. This is crucial for foreign companies," Zheng said.
There have been 570,000 foreign enterprises in China since the country opened it's door to foreign investors in 1980s, and some 25 million people have been working for them by the end of 2005, according to official statistics.
Survey found that many foreign companies in coastal Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces overworked and underpaid their employees.
It was reported earlier this year that McDonald's, KFC and Pizza Hut in southern Chinese city Guangzhou paid their part-time Chinese employees four yuan (52 U.S. cents) per hour, more than 40 percent less than local minimum wage of 7.5 yuan (97 U.S. cents).
The fast food chains were also exposed for failing to sign labor contracts with employees and overworked staff.