China: worker rights and the mirage of ‘reform’
Trade union and NGO statements submitted for the UN’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review of member states’ human rights records give stark evidence of the relentless and systematic repression of worker and trade union rights in the People’s Republic of China. Submissions from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), ITUC, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others, demonstrate that workers in China who organize in defense of their interests, go on strike or even petition to the government are fired, criminalized, arbitrarily detained in “black jails” outside the legal framework or sentenced to prison labour – with the complicity of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which remains the single authorized “workers’ organization” under existing law.
Tens and millions of rural migrants to the urban industrial centers – over a third of the urban population – suffer systematic discrimination and lack basic rights to residency, social protection and education. Worker and labour rights activists seeking to function as legal NGOs are subject to surveillance, fines and eviction.
Legal “reforms” designed to suggest convergence with international rights standards have been essentially cosmetic or even retrograde. Article 73 of the new Criminal Procedure Law effectively legalizes forced “disappearances” by allowing police to detain individuals for up to 6 months in unofficial detention centers (“black jails”) without informing family members of the whereabouts of those jailed or detained. Hints of changes earlier this year to the Reeducation through Labour system –a conduit by which the products of forced labour routinely enter international supply chains – chiefly amounted to a change of name to “Illegal Behavior Correction”. According to Amnesty, torture remains “endemic” in China.
The ACFTU’s new clothes and increasing ability to talk the talk that trade unionists visiting China like to hear should not be allowed to obscure the ongoing work of the state’s enormous repressive apparatus and the indispensable role of the ACFTU in this repressive machinery..
The HKCTU submission to the review procedure contains a non-exhaustive list of workers and labour rights activists currently serving sentences of 2 years to life for their defense of working class interests. Their cases, and the urgent need for fundamental democratic change in China, are central to the struggle for worker rights internationally.