Are "hometown unions" the best defenders of migrant workers' rights?

Recently in Shaanxi province, 118 migrant workers – who were mainly from Hubei province – were beaten by 300 thugs while staging a protest to get back their back pay at a railway bridge construction project near the historic city of Xi’an. In total, thirty workers were injured, nine severely. But strangely, what has attracted attention to their case is not the horrific scale of violence used by the employer, but the way the dispute was eventually settled.

After the incident, the Hubei Federation of Trade Unions, the Hubei Nanzhang government, and the Xi’an City Linzhang District government had a series of consultation meetings. They came to the following points of consensus: 1) the public security bureau would conduct an investigation according to the law; 2) the relevant departments would bear responsibility for the medical costs of treating the migrant workers; and 3) the Linzhang government would dispatch an auditing team to carry out a thorough audit on the project’s finances, and according to the audit’s findings, the accounts would be settled with the migrant workers. If an agreement cannot be reached, the case will go through arbitration and then the courts.

According to media reports, after some of the beaten migrant workers told the Xiangfan City Trade Union in Hubei about what had happened, the Hubei Federation of Trade Unions got involved in this case, and a “migrant worker in non-native place rights defense joint mechanism” (农民工异地维权联动机制) was launched. The fact that the two unions, under the guidance of the governments and Party institutions, have largely settled this problem has brought national attention to the concept of yidi wequan (异地维权). Yidi weiquan essentially refers to the concept of having unions from the migrant workers place of origin help in the rights defense process by coordinating and consulting with the local government and union in the place in which the incident occurred. Some people point out that this sort of rights defense may be a way to solve the problem of “local protectionism” – in which enterprise and local-level unions in the place where an incident occurred are basically indifferent to the plight of migrant workers, perhaps because they’re blindly subservient to the local government’s priorities in boosting business and GDP, or perhaps they might be outright corrupt, or just plain lazy. But to what extent can this serve as a viable solution in solving workers’ grievances?

On the one hand, the most prominent institutional example of yidi weiquan is what Sichuan province has done since instituting yidi weiquan mechanisms in various provinces, cities, and counties since 2005. From 2005 to 2009, Sichuan’s yidi weiquan organizations got involved in 1,211 cases by helping local trade union to take on rights defense cases. In total, by getting involved in these cases, they helped migrant workers win back over 36 million yuan in wages in arrears, and over 6 million in occupational injury cases.
When looking at these numbers, combined with the fact that the Xi’an case seems to have been resolved relatively smoothly, one can certainly see the positive aspects of this model. By enlisting the help of their tongxiang (fellow hometown folk) migrant workers might get extra help in situations in which they might otherwise be given the cold shoulder.
However, the model also has several limitations, some of which the Chinese press has pointed out. First, as an editorial in the Yangtze Daily (长江日报) points out, a union’s relationship with workers should be based on labour relations, not on geographic origin of the workers. But, the editorial notes that the fact that the Hubei union initiated an investigation, rather than the Xi’an union initiating it, demonstrates that local unions’ power to protect the rights of migrant workers is fairly weak. Second, the practical limitations to this model are also quite apparent. As the editorial notes, migrant workers are the main workforce these days – with an estimated number of 210 million. With this many people working far away from their hometowns, and with labour rights violations so rampant, is a system that might necessitate officials flying back and forth to distant cities and staying in hotels really feasible financially? Clearly the costs are very high, and it clearly wouldn’t make much economic sense for officials in far away areas to get involved in routine cases involving relatively small amounts of back wages. Also, it’s notable in the Xi’an incident mentioned above that not only the unions of both places became involved, but the negotiations also involved Party and government officials. Obviously, the case had already taken on a political dimension, which paradoxically helped facilitate a settlement. However, the vast majority of labour rights violations occur in private sector industries, and most have no direct political implications. These are the types of cases the yidi weiquan model is ill-suited to solving. It should also go without saying that while the yidi weiquan model might have a role to play in rights defense distant unions are incapable of playing a more pro-active role pre-incident role: by monitoring workplace safety conditions, engaging in collective bargaining…etc.

Although the model can play a certain limited role, its main rationale – that hometown solidarity can help migrant workers overcome local protectionism – is outdated. First, as many people in China now recognize, “migrant workers”, who are often referred to as nongmingong (农民工) or “the floating population” (流动人口) , now need to be seen as simply “workers” or “new urban citizens” (新市民). Undoubtedly, this shift in mentality will require a new sense of dignity and respect for these workers. Second, the ACFTU needs thorough reform so that it can be run by workers, in order to serve workers − no matter where they are from.
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