China Labour Bulletin – Supporting the workers’ movement in China
China Labour Bulletin supports and actively engages with the emergent workers’ movement in China. We recognise that at this stage of their long struggle for decent pay and decent work, China’s workers need a trade union that can actually defend their interests and represent them in collective bargaining with their employer. We also recognise that China’s sole legally-mandated trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has so far failed to adequately support the workers’ movement. Our aim is to hold the ACFTU accountable to its members, encourage workers to get involved in organizing, and thereby gradually transform enterprise and local trade unions into genuinely representative institutions.
Our values are broadly social democratic, and we seek to promote those values in tandem with the development of the workers’ movement in China. This means support for workplace democracy, freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, equal pay for equal work, and the elimination of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. We support the development of a fairer, more inclusive society in which excessive income disparity is eliminated and every citizen has equal access to social welfare, education and healthcare. In line with the International Labour Organization (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, we are also committed to promoting and realising the elimination of all forms of forced labour and child labour in China.
We recognize the fundamental values of tolerance, understanding and solidarity as prerequisites for cooperation with all our partners within China and internationally.
CLB is committed to managing its financial, material and human resources responsibly and in line with internationally accepted best practice. We aim to create and maintain a safe and productive work environment in which the full potential of staff and partners can be realised. In the course of our work, we endeavour to act in a cost-effective manner, with respect to individual rights and with due consideration to environmental sustainability and protection.
China Labour Bulletin is headquartered in Hong Kong and employs 14 full-time staff from mainland China, Hong Kong and overseas. Our staff have decades of experience in labour relations in China, labour law, the practical implementation of collective bargaining, and the global trade union movement, as well as media and communications strategy inside China and internationally (see contact information below for more details).
We work with dozens of labour activists, lawyers and civil society organizations throughout China who likewise have unapparelled experience in their particular fields of expertise. The Hong Kong office is responsible for the overall management and financing of CLB’s work and provides the resources and strategic guidance our associates in mainland China need to meet their objectives.
CLB is uniquely placed to facilitate and enhance international solidarity between China’s workers and international trade unionists by publishing the most up-to-date and reliable information on developments in China’s workers’ movement and providing channels for funding, dialogue and collaboration. Importantly, CLB has established links with civil society organizations and trade unions in several mature economies as well as developing countries, and in particular India, allowing Chinese workers to share their valuable experiences of organizing, collective bargaining, and maintaining solidarity against obdurate employers. This exchange also gives workers and labour activists in China an insight into the work of trade unions in other countries.
CLB’s website contains a comprehensive range of resources for international trade unionists, researchers, journalists and others who wish to know more about the workers’ movement and trade unionism in China:
- CLB’s bi-lingual, interactive Strike Map shows how active and widespread workers collective action really is with more than 10,000 strikes and protests logged since 2011.
- Our Work Accident Map likewise illustrates the hazards that workers have to deal with on a daily basis, and pinpoints the most dangerous industries in China.
- In the section What you need to know about workers in China we answer frequently asked questions about labour relations in China, and provide detailed, up to date information on employment and wages, social security, workplace discrimination, China’s labour dispute resolution system, migrant workers and work safety.
- Timely analysis of the most recent developments in the workers’ movement can be found in Latest News and our monthly e-Newsletter.
- We have produced around 50 English and Chinese-language Research Reports, dating back to 2003 that examine a wide range of issues affecting China’s workers both at home and abroad.
- Workers’ Voices is a unique archive containing nearly 100 English-language summaries of CLB Director Han Dongfang’s conversations with workers dating from 2007 to 2015. These stories have also been collected in an e-book China’s Workers Wronged published by Radio Free Asia.
CLB is widely acknowledged as the leading authority on the workers’ movement and labour relations in China and our expert opinion has been widely quoted in international media such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and The Economist.
Some frequently asked questions about CLB
What is CLB’s legal status?
China Labour Bulletin is registered as a limited company in Hong Kong. However, it operates as a non-profit organization and does not retain any income that has not been spent on core costs and project work. CLB has a three-member board that provides oversight and guidance for our operations in Hong Kong and China.
In addition, CLB has a sister organization, Friends of China Labour Bulletin, which is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt, non-profit organization based in the United States, set up to facilitate fund-raising in the United States and provide an additional layer of oversight.
How is CLB funded?
CLB receives grants from a wide range of government or quasi-government bodies, trade unions and private foundations, all of which are based outside of China. Some grants are for specific projects, while others cover CLB’s core operating costs.
How does the All-China Federation of Trade Unions fit into the picture?
The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is China’s sole legally mandated trade union. It claims to be the “world’s largest trade union,” with around 314 million members and more than one million full-time officials. The structure of the ACFTU reflects the hierarchical administration of the Chinese Communist Party and regional government: ACFTU officials are essentially government bureaucrats with little understanding of the needs of workers or how to represent them in negotiations with management. At the enterprise-level, the vast majority of unions are controlled by management and represent the interests of management. Only very occasionally will an enterprise trade union actually support workers against management.
CLB has no working relationship with or any direct contact with the ACFTU or any of its regional affiliates. Instead, we work with grassroots worker leaders and activists in China who have both the ability and standing to become good trade unionists. It is the aim of CLB and our partners to help these workers take part in democratic trade union elections and show for the first time that trade unionists in Chinese enterprises can represent their members and push for improved pay and conditions through collective bargaining with management. By working with these activists, and by expanding the discussion among government officials, policy advisors and labour scholars about the role of the trade union in China, CLB hopes to assist in the necessary and urgent task of trade union reform.
A short history of China Labour Bulletin
Or why China Labour Bulletin is called China Labour Bulletin
CLB was first established in Hong Kong in 1994 as a bi-lingual, monthly newsletter designed to inform international trade unionists of events inside China and to let Chinese workers know about domestic labour news and the role of trade unions. The Chinese version of the newsletter initially mimicked official newspapers such as the Workers Daily (工人月报) or Reference News (劳工参考消息) before being published under its own name China Labour Bulletin (中国劳工通讯). See photo left.
In 1998, CLB’s founder and executive director Han Dongfang started broadcasting on Radio Free Asia. His program, the Labour Bulletin (劳工通讯) gave Han the opportunity to talk directly to workers in mainland China and for the first time influence events on the ground rather than just reporting them.
The radio program also gave CLB the chance to work with lawyers in China who were willing to take on the cases of the aggrieved workers Han interviewed. The internet was just getting established in China in the early 2000s and this allowed CLB to create a small but dedicated network of lawyers across the country, including well known human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng who represented the workers at the Stella Shoe factories in Dongguan in 2004.
As our network of lawyers and activists grew we were able to take on numerous ground-breaking cases of employment discrimination in the areas of health, gender, sexuality etc., and encouragingly it is now increasingly common for women in particular to come forward to file complaints about gender discrimination, although clearly much more needs to be done. We have assisted hundreds of workers with work-related injuries and illnesses, in particular those suffering from pneumoconiosis (China’s most prevalent occupational disease) in obtaining the compensation they are legally entitled to. For more details and a comprehensive overview of this issue, see CLB’s research report Time to Pay the Bill: China’s obligation to the victims of pneumoconiosis. In addition, we helped hundreds of worker activists, such as Walmart veteran Wang Shishu, who had been fired by their employer to either win reinstatement or obtain proper compensation for unfair dismissal. In total, we have published around 80 representative case summaries in our Labour Rights Litigation section.
By 2005, CLB realised that although taking on individual legal cases could make a difference, there were simply too many cases of labour rights violations in China for any one organization to handle. CLB took the tactical decision to focus in addition on developing the collective bargaining capacity of China’s workers as a means of resolving labour disputes before they escalated into conflict. While the received wisdom at the time was that you cannot have collective bargaining without freedom of association, CLB took the view that this approach was simply not a practical option in China given the monopoly of the ACFTU.
Initial success was limited due to worker apathy and a lack of knowledge about unions and the collective bargaining process. It was not until 2011, when several hundred workers at the Citizen Watch factory in Shenzhen went on strike and demanded collective bargaining with management that the program really began to gain traction. Many of our best known collective bargaining cases, such as the Guangzhou sanitation workers’ contract dispute of 2014 and the Lide shoe factory workers campaign for compensation the following year, have been documented in detail on our website. However, there have been more than 100 similar cases where workers, with the help of civil society labour activists in our network, have organised collectively and forced the boss to the bargaining table. We used this practical experience to compile a Code of Collective Bargaining for workers and management and conducted numerous collective bargaining trainings for workers across China.
The first half of the 2010s was a period of rapid expansion for CLB in which we took on new staff, forged new partnerships with civil society labour organizations in mainland China, and broadened our reach both within China and internationally through new social media initiatives.
However, the Chinese government’s crackdown on civil society organizations that began in 2014 and escalated in 2015 has made the operating environment in mainland China far more challenging. In response, we have started to concentrate more resources in our Hong Kong headquarters and develop a more integrated approach that can provide the support our partners on the ground in China need as well as widen and diversify our social media presence and influence in China.
CLB hired additional staff in 2016 to enhance our media outreach and advocacy, data collection and research capabilities. And in 2018, returning to CLB’s roots, we refocused on Han Dongfang’s RFA interviews with workers and trade union officials as a means of highlighting the importance of trade union reform. Going forward, our media and communications work will play an increasingly important role in driving our overall strategy of supporting and developing the workers’ movement and trade union reform in China.