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Chinese labour activist gets Sigrid Rausing Trust Award

16 September 2005

In an interesting attempt to try to achieve decent working conditions for the millions of workers around the world who produce goods for Wal-Mart, the International Labour Rights Fund has filed a law suit against the US retail giant for failing enforce its code of conduct with its supplier factories.

Many of these factories are in China, where Wal-Mart last year bought more than 18 billion dollars worth of goods. Wal-Mart is such a powerful buyer in China that it has the power to make or break any supplier. It is not a power that Wal-Mart, the plaintiffs claim, has used in favour of its workers.

Wal-Mart orders many of its goods not through wholesalers but direct from manufacturers. Those manufacturers in turn, use components that are produced further up the supply chain. Wal-Mart’s aim is to shift large quantities of cheap goods to its customers. To do this, it drives hard bargains with its suppliers. To fulfill their contracts, the suppliers are obliged to drive their workers equally hard.

On the other hand, like other major Western companies, Wal-Mart has an image to protect. Will its customers still enjoy their cheap goods if they are aware of the human costs of producing them? To address this problem, major brands that source their good in China draw up agreements with their suppliers that lay down minimum conditions for the workers: these set out rules on overtime, minimum pay, working conditions and so on. Wal-Mart’s suppliers have been known to complain that they can either meet Wal-Mart’s hard bargains or treat their workers in accordance with the code of conduct, but doing both is impossible.

Suppliers to other major brands, facing similar challenges, have developed elaborate counter-compliance practices to outwit the external compliance inspectors whose job it to ensure that the codes of conduct are being honoured. It can be an elaborate cat and mouse game, in which workers are coached in how to answer inspectors’ questions and double sets of timesheets and accounts are kept. The compliance inspector – often responsible for too many factories, with too little time and too little help, faces what some have described as an impossible task.

There is, though, another answer to the question of worker exploitation in China and elsewhere in the global south: free trades unions with guaranteed rights. With real trades unions, the workers themselves become the compliance enforcers. But in China, the official All China Trades Union functions as an arm of the state. (In an ironic sidebar to the Wal-Mart experience, the company, which has a no trade union policy, was forced to accept the formation of China’s official union).

This week, in London, a man who has devoted his life to the rights of workers in China – including their right to form free trades unions, was honoured with a special award by the Sigrid Rausing Trust. Han Dongfang, director of the China Labour Bulletin, was one of the few workers among the thousands of student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Han’s Beijing-based Workers' Autonomous Federation was China’s first (and only) independent union and was seen as a serious threat by the Chinese communist party.

Han was imprisoned without trial, sharing a cell with a tubercular inmate. He contracted tuberculosis and was released after 22 months, gravely ill. He recovered in the United States, then tried to return to China but found himself banned. He settled in Hong Kong where he still lives. Last year I watched Han Dongfang in operation, gathering information for a radio programme on labour disputes and labour rights in China, a programme that is broadcast into China. Working the phones, calling local officials, trades union officials, workers and factory managers, he patiently built up a picture of an industrial dispute for broadcast later that day. His programme has become a beacon for Chinese workers who, after more than fifty years of state controls, have little idea of their constitutional rights or how to organize to protect them.

In addition to broadcasting, Han Dongfang’s organization, the China Labour Bulletin reports on Chinese labour issues and offers legal advice and support to workers and their families. He is critical of China’s treatment of its workers, but there is another rationale to what he does: labour disputes and worker unrest are rife in China and Han Dongfang sees them as one of the greatest threats to China’s stability. To give rights to workers, he argues, would be both the right thing to do and in the interests of China’s government. He himself is not trying to make another revolution: he is trying to get the workers off the streets and railway lines and into the law courts in the hope that there they can find peaceful, legal solutions. For an extended interview with Han Dongfang, see The New Left Review.

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