Foxconn trade union a sham

Oh dear. The highly publicised trade union at Foxconn, the factory whose output includes Apple iPhones, is not as worker-friendly as the PR makes out.

The official trade union federation, All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), of which Foxconn’s is a member. is hardly likely to lead a walk-out. Any effective collective union activity in China has been unofficial and therefore illegal.

Now there’s an election looming for union leaders and serious flaws in the process range from the farcical to banana republic.

Josh Eidelson writes in Salon:

When the Chinese factory giant Foxconn – famous for mass suicides and military-style management – announced recently that it would begin allowing workers to elect their own local union leaders, it brought a wave of positive press for its Western customers like Apple. But will it make any difference for Foxconn employees, the workers who make wildly popular products such as iPhones?

“The precedent we have for these democratic union elections is not very encouraging,” said Eli Friedman, a professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell. Even if “they’re run reasonably well, and you get some kind of activist” elected as a local union leader, “the problem is when they actually try to do anything for their members, they – as in many places – will face retaliation from management.” Worse, “oftentimes higher levels of the trade union, or the government, will collaborate with management to either make this person’s life incredibly difficult, or just force them from office.”

Western companies profiting from shameful sweatshop labour kicked up when China made a stab at improving workers’ rights.

China’s federal government passed a major pro-labor law in 2007, and has since encouraged minimum wage increases by municipalities. The laws were blasted by U.S. business groups, which warned that they would hurt investment in China. Friedman credits the laws to the desire of some in the Chinese government to dampen worker protests while transitioning to a higher-wage economy with greater domestic consumer demand.

But the laws haven’t calmed China’s strikes. Instead, the five years since the new labor law went into effect have been marked by an upsurge in strikes: tens of thousands of walkouts per year, without legal protection, by workers acting independently of the ACFTU. What gives?

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