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China: ACFTU representing workers’ interests on ILO governing body – that cannot be serious!

In June 2011 the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) was elected by the ILO workers’ group to the ILO Governing Body.

Before taking up the issues arising from the presence of the ACFTU on the ILO Governing Body (on which it presumably now sits as a representative of workers' interests and defender of workers' rights), I have to reiterate my fundamental belief that any action that legitimates the ACFTU needs to be seriously questioned.

Whilst the IUF apparently now stands amongst a minority of labour movement organizations still maintaining that view, we see no reason to change our position at this time. There is, we believe, little or no evidence that anything productive in relation to worker rights has come from the many years of engagement with the ACFTU by a growing number of labour movement organizations.

As an organization fighting internationally alongside many others to secure the fundamental rights for which so many of our members sacrifice so much, so often and in so many parts of the world, we see nothing that can justify devaluing that sacrifice and those principles in the name of a relationship with an organization which is as far removed from that struggle as an organization could be. To do so simply because they appear to currently be "the only show in town" or in the name of pragmatism is no defense.

As unions we of course negotiate with a range of governments, employers and other groupings, on occasion distasteful ones, and we are often guided by a degree of pragmatism, but we do so at the same time preserving basic principles. There is a point at which pragmatism crosses the line of those fundamental principles and we believe some actions towards the ACFTU in recent times are at that point.

The crossing of that line in relation to the ACFTU is nowhere clearer than the support some have given at the ILO which has now led to the inclusion of the ACFTU as a titular member of the workers' side of the ILO governing body. The role of the ILO governing body is presumably to protect in a consensual manner the principles of the ILO and the fundamental rights it struggles to establish and defend. Of the three ILO constituencies it is the workers constituency that should be the most aggressively defending those principles and rights. An extraordinary step has now been taken. The notion that the ACFTU could subscribe to defending any of those fundamental principles or those rights, particularly the cornerstone right of freedom of association, flies in the face of the ACFTU's fundamental and inescapable role. Meaningfully supporting freedom of association is not a matter of choice for the ACFTU. It is simply impossible for it unless it sets itself in direct confrontation with the political apparatus that set it up and runs it. Given current developments in China today and given its core purpose, it patently cannot do this.

There may occasionally be some grey areas when assessing the independence of union organizations around the world and their freedom to act independently at the behest of and in the interests of their members. However the IUF remains firmly convinced that there is no greyness in relation to the role of the ACFTU. Whatever individual ACFTU officials may say privately, as individuals who may or may not be expressing genuine interest in some form of reform, their utterances cannot represent the position of the institution itself - and it is the ACFTU as an institution that now speaks in a titular role for workers' rights on the most respected global body charged to defend those rights.

The IUF disassociates itself totally from the view that the ACFTU can play any legitimate or even constructive role on the ILO's governing body, whether such a view is based on naivety or some concept of "Realpolitik". Supporting the ACFTU in such a role subordinates basic labour movement principles in a clear and deeply regrettable way.

The IUF is also deeply concerned about the message that positions taken at the ILO Conference on this issue might send to those fighting for fundamental rights around the world. We would include amongst those the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) in China itself. It is worth recalling that when organized initially by workers as the Christian Industrial Committee (CIC) the independent unions, few as they were, were generally considered not worthy of unqualified support because the Beijing-supported and Taipei-supported union machines were "the only shows in town". Fortunately some courageous workers and leaders in Hong Kong did not act based on "pragmatism" alone. They rather acted on principle. They took the difficult and courageous decision, courageous even in Hong Kong prior to the handover, to fight to build an independent trade union movement.

The IUF remains proud to have been amongst the few who gave the CIC and subsequently the HKCTU unqualified support in those initial days of struggle. They were successful and gradually gained the recognition and support from the world's labour movement that they deserved then and critically deserve today. It would be a tragedy if the message now was that they need not have bothered because, were they to have allowed the state-supported machine to run the labour movement in Hong Kong, they would have found acceptance by many in the labour movement internationally simply on the basis they could now claim to be "the only show in town". We believe that the HKCTU and the courageous independent voices in China represent all that is decent and principled in China's labour landscape. We would caution against sending a message that they are now at risk of being marginalized because there are somehow bigger fish to fry.

The IUF will rather maintain a clear and unambiguous position, standing with those in China defending, often at significant personal risk, our most basic principles. They do so for themselves but they also do so for us all.



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