Will the ACFTU Organize a Union at Foxconn?

by Paul Garver


Apple CEO Tim Cook visits an iPhone production line at a Foxconn facility in China in 2012.  Photo: Bloomberg

Officials of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) are not in the habit of criticizing major employers.

So when at a press conference in Beijing on February 2nd, Guo Jun, director of the ACFTU’s Legal Work Department, included Foxconn Technology in a list of companies who required their employees to work excessive overtime in violation of Chinese labor law, it caused a stir in the Chinese and foreign media.

Foxconn is not a mom-and-pop company.  It is the largest electronics manufacturer in the world, the largest private employer in China with 1.3 million workers, and ranks 30th on the Fortune listing of global companies by sales.   It produces over half of the electronic hardware in the world for Apple, HP and all the other major global branded electronics corporations.

Five years ago, as we frequently reported in Talking Union, a dozen young workers at Foxconn’s  giant assembly plant in Shenzhen ended their lives by leaping from the factory complex dormitories, protesting endless hours of mind-numbing repetitive toil.  Pro-worker NGOs in Hong Kong and China leapt into action, documenting widespread abuses at Foxconn, and demanding that Apple, its largest customer, hold its supplier to improving wages and working conditions.  They also pointed out that the chronic abuses at the chief supplier are a product of Apple’s squeezes and unethical buying practices, and the Chinese governments’ support to large investors, at the sacrifice of workers’ rights and even their lives. As protests spread, both in Greater China and elsewhere, Apple agreed to require inspections of three Foxconn factories (out of more than 30) in China by the Fair Labor Association(FLA) in 2012 and 2013.

More significantly Foxconn decided to locate its major new factories deeper in the interior of China where wages were lower and the supply of laborers closer to hand.  Another huge factory complex was constructed in less than a year in Chengdu (capital of Sichuan province), informally called iPad City for its major product.  When several workers were killed by an explosion of aluminum dust caused by management negligence on 20 May 2011, security officers rushed to the hospitals to prevent any protests or media coverage.  But vigilant networks of Chinese and Hong Kong students and workers publicized the event and a similar explosion at another Shanghai-based Apple supplier seven months later.

The Fair Labor Association (FLA), no doubt in good faith (though well compensated for their efforts by Apple) has reported that Foxconn and Apple are in the process of drawing up an action plan to correct the most flagrant abuses at three major Foxconn factories, including ones in Shenzhen and Chengdu.  The final FLA report was completed and published online in December 2013 – it did not end serious violations such as illegal overtime; in other words, it does not go beyond good public relations for Apple. As of this writing on 10 February 2015, we were still waiting for Apple’s Supplier Responsibility Progress Report.

Unfortunately for Apple, Foxconn and the FLA a growing network of worker and student activists within China has been investigating in depth a much wider range of Foxconn facilities throughout China, and finding that excessive overtime and serious health and safety violations remain endemic.  One item completely overlooked by FLA investigators was the wholesale exploitation of some 7000 “student interns” for repetitive assembly work at Chengdu, when a major order from Apple had to be quickly filled in late 2011 to early 2012 [ Aditya Charabotty, 14 October 2013, “Forced student labor is central to the Chinese economic miracle,” The Guardian]. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/14/forced-student-labour-china-apple

Beginning in the fall of 2014, Apple sales of the new iPhone 6 and iPhone6Plus surged, to reach some 74.5 million in the last quarter of 2014.  Even though Foxconn is itself a highly integrated and diversified electronics manufacturer, it remains heavily dependent on Apple (for 40% of its total sales).  When Apple demanded maximum production of the new iPhones at maximum speed, Foxconn responded. According to extensive reports by Shenzhen worker and student activists (on a site called in English iLabour) mandatory overtime was imposed on Foxconn assembly workers during the peak Apple season (September to December 2014) to the extent of 152 hours overtime a month on top of the standard 40 hour work week (plus 9 hours of overtime whenever appropriate).    This meant on average one rest day a month (whereas at last one day of rest per week is required by law), with every other day of the month dedicated to 10 hour shifts of the most routine and monotonous assembly tasks.  This far exceeds the statutory limit in Chinese law of 36 hours overtime per month.

Hence the comment by the ACFTU’s  Guo Jun, who reminded Foxconn that employees forced to work excessive overtime were susceptible to psychological problems including suicide, a deliberate echo of the 2010 suicide wave.

Foxconn responded angrily on February 3rd that the workers wanted the overtime to increase their income, and that the company provided professional counseling and support services 24/7 to help workers cope with these challenges.  The company claimed that these support services “are saving lives each and every day” (!).  It also taunted Guo Jun for never visiting the Foxconn factories criticized by the ACFTU.

A number of activists commented that it would not be a bad idea for the ACFTU official to actually visit factories and talk to workers.   What Guo Jun would find is that there is already a “union” at Foxconn, though no workers know that they are members of it.  The chair of the Foxconn union, since 2007 to the present, is Ms Chen Peng, a special assistant to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou.  She was appointed as Union Chair by Foxconn managerial appointment, with no election then or since.

Quoted in the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), Chang Kai, a highly respected professor at Renmin University’s labor and human resources school in Beijing, remarked:

“It’s a good thing that the ACFTU showed their attitude, but it’s just the first step.  Next, the union should suggest solutions. Foxconn doesn’t have a union chosen by workers at all.”

Five years on, will the ACFTU take the next step, and try to organize a real union at Foxconn?

I have made use over the last five years of extensive research conducted by SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior), a Hong Kong based NGO, in reporting on Foxconn workers in Talking Union.   As background for this article, I was graciously granted access to research by Jenny Chan, Pun Ngai and Mark Selden to be published in  2015 as “Apple’s iPad City: Subcontracting the Exploitation of Labour to China.” Ch. 5 in Handbook on the International Political Economy of Global Production, edited by Kees Van Der Pijl. [Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing].

Eli Friedman’s Insurgency Trap: A Review

 by Paul Garver

Insuregency Trap cover image

Eli Friedman’s Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China is indispensable for anyone trying to understand what is happening with hundreds of millions of internal migrant workers in China today. Postsocialist China has become the world’s largest manufacturing center and exporter to the rest of the world, and the future of Chinese society and of the global economy hinges on whether the new Chinese working class remains excluded from its social and political system.

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Welcoming China’s labor federation back into the global union family?

TU vs. workers

by Eric Lee

[Ed. Note: This image shows strikebreakers sent by the local union federation attacking young striking workers at a Honda parts plant in 2010  The local union  was forced to apologize and a higher level federation officer helped negotiate higher wages at the plant.  A wave of strikes at auto parts plants in China followed.  -Paul Garver]

At the end of March, the International Labour Organisation’s Bureau for Workers Activities (known as ILO-ACTRAV) and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) signed a Memorandum of Understanding “to promote Trade unions South-South Cooperation in the Asia- Pacific region”.

The Director-General of the ILO, Guy Ryder, said “we need to find a way which so that the ACFTU can work more closely with other parts of the international trade union movement, sharing common objectives.”

Ryder is a former General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, which has decided to invite the ACFTU to attend its upcoming World Congress in Berlin in May.

These two events illustrate the fact that the trade union leadership in much of the developed world now seems keen on putting the past behind us and welcoming China’s trade unions back into our “global family”.

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Searching for the Union: The workers’ movement in China 2011-13

China Labour Bulletin

CLB-searchingfor the union
[Editorial Note: For many years the China Labour Bulletin (CLB) has been a reliable source for information on and analysis of the workers’ movement in China. Alhough the CLB remains highly critical of the official trade union structures, its editors have documented and encouraged efforts by certain regional union officials to initiate badly needed reforms essential for meeting the workers’ rising demands for a genuine voice in the workplace. However, as this excellent new report shows, the real impetus for positive change is coming from the rising consciousness of Chinese workers themselves.–Paul Garver]

China’s workers have emerged over the last few years as a strong, unified and increasingly active collective force. Workers have time and again demonstrated the will and the ability to stand up to abusive and arrogant managements and to demand better pay and working conditions.

However, workers are still hampered by the lack of an effective trade union that can maintain solidarity, bargain directly with managements and protect labour leaders from reprisals.  As a result, workers are turning to labour rights groups that can advise and support their collective actions while, at the same time, demanding more of the official trade union and putting pressure on it to change.

In China labour Bulletin’s new research report on the workers’ movement, published today, we examine this evolving relationship between the workers, the trade union and civil society and look at how the government is struggling to respond to rapid social and economic change. Continue reading

China: UE Explores Labor Conditions in the World’s Largest Country

by Robin Alexander
UE Director of International Labor Affairs

Representatives from UE, UAW and the Solidarity Center meet with professors from Renmin University and the China Institute of Industrial Relations in Beijing

More than a dozen UE employers – General Electric, Assa Abloy, Stepan and others – have operations in China. In an effort to find ways to connect with these workers and their unions and to understand the situation faced by Chinese workers following last summer’s widely-reported strikes, UE Director of Organization Bob Kingsley and I took advantage of an unique opportunity to visit China in late December and early January.

We traveled first to Guangzhou and then to Beijing. In both cities we met a variety of labor experts, non-government organizations (NGOs), students and migrant workers. In Guangzhou, we were fortunate to have as our guide Ellen David Friedman, a friend of UE through years of work with the Vermont Workers Center. The trip was sponsored by the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, and in Beijing we were joined by two representatives from the UAW.
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What Kind of Workers’ Movement?

by Paul Garver

Carl Finamore already reviewed Steve Early’s The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor for Talking Union.  I’d like to comment further on this important book, focusing on the issue of the organizational structures needed to rebuild the workers’ movement in the current context.

Should we be reflecting on our own weaknesses and sources of disunity while an implacable external enemy is threatening our very existence?  We are in a war for the very survival of public sector unionism, as right wing ideologues financed by billionaire foes of all working people are assailing this bastion of any conceivable progressive revival in the USA. We are encouraged that private and public sector unions stand united, while communities and campuses are mobilizing in their support.  But even in a hot phase of the class war there are lulls in the battle that permit some reading and reflection.  Reading Early’s book help us understand that our own weaknesses and dysfunctional behavior contributed to our current crisis. Continue reading

Hong Kong Business Federations Derail Labor Law Reforms in Guangdong, China

By Paul Garver


The Pearl River Delta of southern China is the world’s most massive industrial complex.  Tens of millions of industrial workers, mainly internal migrants from inland China, labor long hours in vast factory complexes that churn out all kinds of industrial products for export and for domestic markets.  A previous article on Talking Union provides background on the pivotal role that Guangdong Province plays in the global economy.

A wave of successful wildcat strikes in the Chinese auto parts industry in the summer of 2010, along with public sympathy for the numerous young workers who committed suicide at Foxconn’s massive electronics factories in Shenzhen, focused attention on the desperate need to provide mechanisms for meeting the expectations of young migrant workers in Guangdong Province. The provincial government dusted off draft legislation (shelved during the 2009 economic scare) that would establish procedures for collective wage negotiations. New articles were crafted by trade union reformers from the Guangzhou municipal trade union federation and the Guangdong provincial trade unions together with their academic advisors. These new clauses provide workers with mechanisms to elect their own bargaining representatives, allow them to choose their own advisors and enterprise union officials, and encourage annual negotiations to raise wage levels that no longer met the aspirations of the workers and failed to keep up with the soaring cost of living. Continue reading

Auto Strikes Open Up Space for Union Reform in China

by Paul Garver

The workers who struck numerous auto parts plants in China have gained substantial wage increases. More significantly their successful struggles mark the emergence of China’s new industrial working class as a major active force in the Chinese economy and society. Some trade union officials are beginning to reposition their organizations as advocates for workers rather than “neutral” intermediaries between workers and management, allocating that mediating role to local governments.
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Honda China Workers Strike Two More Parts Plants

by Paul Garver

Honda had barely resumed production at its four assembly plants in China following the end of the victorious workers’ strike in Foshan, when a second Honda parts plant went on strike in the same city. On 7 June twenty workers staged a demonstration at the entrance to the Foshan Fengfu Autoparts plant (producing exhaust systems for Guangqi Honda Automobile), and by evening 250 of the 300 front line production workers had joined the strike. The strikers demanded higher wages, less strenuous working hours, and the right to elect their own trade union chairperson. A tentative agreement has been reached, and the strike has been suspended. The details of the settlement are not yet available.

On 9 June 1700 workers at a plant producing mirrors and other parts for Honda went on strike in Zhongshan, also in Guangdong province. More than half of the strikers are young women, with less vocational training than the Foshan strikers. The strikers are demanding wage hikes similar to those won by the strikes at the Foshan parts plants. They are also demanding pay for the down time when their plant was idled by the transmissions plant strike. In an attempt to defuse the strike, management has offered a modest compensation for the lost wages.  But the strike continues, and the workers defied heavy police presence to stage a brief march on June 11.
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Honda Strikers Victorious in China

by Paul Garver

An extraordinary strike has succeeded! 1800 young workers overcame obstacles that seemed insurmountable to win a two-week-long strike at a Honda transmission plant in Foshan City, Guangdong Province, China. They overcome threats by management, violent attacks by union officials that hospitalized four strikers, the absence of legal protection for strikers, and the fact that the majority of the workers were student “interns” from vocational schools that are unprotected by any labor law. They won a 70% wage increase for interns (who were being paid the minimum wage with no benefits), a 35% increase of the somewhat higher rate for regular workers, and a management commitment not to retaliate against strike leaders or participants.

The strikers’ victory is attracting a great deal of attention in the Chinese media, and could be a breakthrough for a more functional collective bargaining system in China. Much depends on whether the workers can consolidate their victory by creating a real workplace union to represent them in the future. We wish them good fortune! (Background in a previous article on this blog.)

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