ACFTU and Trade Unions
ACFTU Union established at Foxconn on the very last day of 2006
On the last day of 2006, the Shenzhen municipal ACFTU sent a group of officials to hold a “Trade Union Law” promotion activity in Longhua town in Shenzhen, South China. It was an unusual activity because the ACFTU, like many other government departments, do not usually operate on Sundays. For a few hours they distributed leaflets and application forms to join a union. By noon, they had collected 118 membership application forms from workers at Foxconn’s Longhua facility and immediately announced that the first Foxconn trade union branch was therefore established.
It was not ACFTU’s first attempt at organizing a branch at Foxconn, but it is so far the most surprising and “successful” move. Back in 2004, the ACFTU branch of Baoan District, where Longhua is situated publicly urged Foxconn to set up a union. However, like many other foreign invested enterprises, Foxconn turned a deaf ear to the demand.
In the summer of 2006, Foxconn, a major Apple iPod-manufacturer, suffered massive negative publicity when a British newspaper published reports that it was mistreating the workforce with low wages and excessive overtime. After the report, Apple published findings from a survey it carried out which refuted the original claims of the newspaper – the reports of which were carried in several Chinese papers. The ITUC among others criticized Apple’s findings on several counts notably that the investigation was not independently verified - and for example Apple interviewed only 100 workers while the facility employs an estimated 30,000 workers devoted to iPod production. Foxconn soon made it even worse by deciding to target two journalists from the mainland China Business News to sue. Their action caused a storm of controversy with media reports, bloggers and others in China siding with the journalists. Following a report that Apple was going to help mediate, Foxconn reduced the amount of damages it was seeking from 30 million Yuan ($3.77 million) to just 1 Yuan and eventually dropped the suit but not before Foxconn’s name became synonymous with foreign-invested bad management and not before the ACFTU decided to target it once again as part of its struggle to establish unions in more private enterprises.
Spurred on by the “success” of unionizing Wal-Mart, Foxconn, the biggest Taiwanese investor in Shenzhen city, who employs some 240,000 workers in Longhua town alone, was set as a priority for the Shenzhen municipal ACFTU.
After the very public shaming of Foxconn, the management signed an agreement with ACFTU in September 2006, declaring its willingness to form a union and announcing that a work group would be formed to undertake preparatory work in November 2006 – however nothing concrete had since emerged.
Given that the Shenzhen ACFTU had said openly that it wanted Foxconn to form a union within the year 2006, on 31 December 2006, ACFTU sent a team to Longhua town, where most of the Foxconn workers live and work, to organize a union. Under Chinese Trade Union Law, any 25 workers from an enterprise who want to form a union are allowed to form one without the consent from their employer; the local ACFTU used this clause to set up this first Foxconn union in China.
Interestingly, the secretary of the Communist Party committee in Foxconn, Liu Zhongxian, who also participated in the official union preparatory group within the enterprise, was not even informed. This shows that the municipal union had decided not to carry on with the usual formal channels which include negotiations with the employers and usually solidarity and support from the Party branch and instead decided to take the lead itself. It did not want to give Foxconn any more opportunities to delay the establishment of a union.
According to mainland newspapers, the new trade union has not had the chance to hold any elections and currently the Shenzhen municipal public transport workers’ union chairperson, Duan Xinqing is the head of the new union.
Many mainland newspapers reported the story of the Foxconn union. While Xinhua, the official newspaper, highlighted it as a success story, newspapers in the south, like the Nanfang Daily were less sympathetic, writing that the “Shenzhen municipal ACFTU ‘forcibly’ organized a Foxconn union”. One Foxconn worker told a Hong Kong newspaper that the establishment of a union was neither here nor there as no one in the factory would really care or think it important. In an internet forum, many internet users also expressed their doubts about the ACFTU’s move, with comments such as “I have no idea what the Shenzhen ACFTU wants to do”; “Will it (the new union) be influential?”; "It’s just another typical publicity stunt.”. One user wrote; “Trade unions in China are like thieves. They are just using this opportunity to make Foxconn pay.”
The union is now three days old and has 118 members and it remains to be seen what shall emerge and how much of a role it will play in improving the working conditions for the Longhua Foxconn workers – all 240,000 of them.
Sources: Nanfang Daily, Xinhua, Mingpao, 2 January 2007
2 January 2006