miércoles, 19 de abril de 2017

China and Vietnam: From the "official" unionism to the real unionism

English translation of the work on trade unionism in China and Vietnam (Sindicalismo en China y Vietnam)

I am enclosing an article on trade unionism (the official and the real, and the transition from the first to the second) in China and Vietnam, prepared jointly with comrade Fernando Rocha of the 1 May Foundation of CCOO. A work whose history is reflected in footnote 1.

China and Vietnam:
the transition from the “official” unionism
to the real unionism[1]

Isidor Boix
Fernando Rocha


The Chinese and Vietnamese trade unions are facing a transition phase, within a context of implementation of the market economy in both countries and its integration into the global world economy. Processes of industrial action are already taken place, exceeding the “official” political and union structures, with a great uncertainty about their future developments and outcomes. This article addresses a critical view of this phenomenon, based on the experience of union cooperation between Spanish union and the unions of both countries, and on the findings from a specific research developed in Vietnam.


Interest in the evolution of organized labor in China and Vietnam can be explained by the geographic, demographic, economic and political dimensions of one of them ─China─ and also by the peculiar history of both countries in their current evolution from a system of centrally planned economy towards the integration in a global market economy.

This evolution, in which trade unions could play an important role, is contradictory inter alia because of the permanence at least formal of the political structures created from the revolutionary processes that led their current states, which is causing increasing labour and social unrest in both countries[2].

China has been considered in the last decade as the "world factory", but also it has became an important "world market". Vietnam is playing an increasing role in the global industrial structure as a pole of attraction in Southeast Asia based on their still low labor costs, although the country is facing a process of fast forward and the increasing quality of production along with a remarkable political stability.

A reference for the present paper is the concept of "real" unionism as the "social organization" to be given in every moment of the working class, understanding the organized labor as an "association of interests" of the employees. The particular relationship of workers with the means of production and their owners or managers generates common interests and the need of their joint defence, leading to define the union as "organization of solidarity" or "organized solidarity".

Against this background, this paper is aimed at addressing a critical approach of the process of transition currently faced by the labour movement in China and Vietnam. A process that is taking place in an increasingly connected world, and whose development seems to be irreversible.

The analysis carried out relies in two main sources of information. Firstly, the direct experience of one of the authors through his visits to different factories of the garment industry in China and Vietnam, reaching a valuable empirical knowledge of the working conditions and the relation of the workers with their unionism, the "official" and the "real"[3]. Secondly, the findings of a research project that has addressed the study of the conditions of life and work and the industrial relations in some of the more important industrial parks in Vietnam[4].

This information is complemented with the data and documents obtained from the official political and union sources, with the news published in both countries, and also with some bibliographical references.

The content of the article is structured as follows: firstly, it is addressed the role of the "party" as a hegemonic political and social subject at the official level in both countries. Second, the paper analyzes the role of the trade union organizations in a context of increasing openness of the economy to the global investments and markets. Thirdly, the legal regulation and development of collective bargaining is analyzed. Fourthly, there is an overview of the evolution of living conditions, followed in the next section with an approach to the phenomenon of strikes in both countries. The article concludes with some final thoughts for the debate.

1. The Party as the only official political and social subject in societies with developing market economies

The affirmation that China and Vietnam can be considered as “market” societies is highly controversial. It can be posed the argument however that the "market" dimension is increasingly relevant, at least at economic level, in both countries[5].

Nevertheless, in spite of the increasing insertion of both countries in the global market economy there is a particular condition of their national legal frameworks that affects to the market performance, and more specifically to the relations between the different social and political groups: the existence and social function of the “single party” and also, in general terms, of the “single-trade union”.

In both countries the Communist Party is, following the pure Stalinist tradition, the real unifying power of society in all areas of organization, both administrative and social, guaranteeing their cohesion (political, cultural, administrative...). It also affects social relations and generates nuances of the market economy itself, especially in its translation into social organization, in form and content as well as in the synthesis of existing social contradictions.

Their constitutions and union laws establish the primacy of the Party over social organizations (in China even on the legal system itself). Particularly on trade unionism in particular, stressing that the single union also necessarily must follow the guidelines of the Party. Moreover, union leaders are integrated today in the leading bodies of the Party, always acting less relevant than in the union structure itself, which means the theoretical subordination of the Union to the Party.

Having said that, it is worth noting that this is a phenomenon with its own life, over which they have no doubt impact their specific social and political realities, as well as the changing world in an increasingly global economy. We have perceived symptoms in this regard throughout our own relationship with both countries, and particularly with their trade union worlds[6].

So, a necessary starting point of our analysis is giving a brief overview of the legal rules that highly affects to the core of the trade unionism activity in both countries, namely the freedom of union association and the right of strike.

The Trade Union Law of the People's Republic of China[7] establishes in the General Provisions that the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (AFCTU) and all the trade union organizations represent the interests of the workers, and also that they “shall observe and safeguard the Constitution, take it as the fundamental criterion for their activities, take economic development as the central task, uphold the socialist road, the people's democratic dictatorship, leadership by the Communist Party of China, and Marxist-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory” (article 4).

The law also establishes that “the All-China Federation of Trade Unions shall be established as the unified national organization” (article 10). And the it is established a clear hierarchy en the union structure and its limitations, noting that “the establishment of basic-level trade union organizations, local trade union federations, and national or local industrial trade union organizations shall be submitted to the trade union organization at the next higher level for approval” (article 13).

It is worth highlighting that the right to strike is recognized neither by the Constitution nor by the Union law, after it was removed from the Constitution in 1982 under the argument that the Chinese political system had “eradicated problems between the proletariat and enterprise owners”.

After the removal of the right to strike, the article 27 of the Union Law establishes an alternative figure (shameful really), the “work-stoppage”: “in case of work-stoppage or slow-down strike in an enterprise or institution, the trade union shall, on behalf of the workers and staff members, hold consultation with the enterprise or institution or the parties concerned, present the opinions and demands of the workers and staff members, and put forth proposals for solutions. With respect to the reasonable demands made by the workers and staff members, the enterprise or institution shall try to satisfy them”.

The Constitution Of the Socialist Republic Of Vietnam[8] establishes that “the Communist Party of Vietnam, the vanguard of the Vietnamese working class, simultaneously the vanguard of the toiling people and of the Vietnamese nation, the faithful representative of the interests of the working class, the toiling people, and the whole nation, acting upon the Marxist-Leninist doctrine and Ho Chi Minh's thought, is the leading force of the State and society” (article 4).

Without opposing to this "driving" of society by the Party, the Labour Code of Vietnam[9] establishes that workers shall have among others the right to strike (article 5.f).

This law also includes a specific and complex regulation of the strikes and strikes resolution that, if followed, would seriously limit the application of this right. Thus, it establishes that the strike “shall only be carried out in regard to interest-based collective labour disputes” (article 209.2), but not because a dispute on the interpretation of compliment of the law.

It also establishes a set of cases where the strikes are illegal (article 215): (1) the strike does not arise from an interest-based collective labour dispute; (2) the strike is organized for employees who are not working for the same employer; (3) the strike occurs whilst the collective labour dispute is being resolved or has not been resolved by the competent agencies, organizations or individuals in accordance with this Code; (4)  The strike occurs in an enterprise in the list of enterprises provided by the Government in which strike is prohibited; and (5) the strike occurs when the decision to postpone or cancel the strike has been issued.

There are also some relevant provisions concerning to the procedures for going on strike. For example, strikes must be organized and led by the Executive Committee of the grassroots level trade union, or by the upper-level trade union upon the request of the employees in undertakings where the grassroots level trade union has not been established (Article 210). Also, it is established that “employees who take part in the strike shall not be paid with wages or other benefits as stipulated by law, unless agreed otherwise by both parties” (Article 218.2).

Finally, it can be noted that “strikes are prohibited in undertakings which are essential for the national economy and in which strikes may threaten the national security, defence, public health and public order. The list of such undertakings shall be provided by the Government” (Article 220.1).

Despite such limitations, it should however be assessed that the legal recognition of the right to strike in Vietnam and union intervention in its development, mean that the union is considered as an expression of the interest on one side, workers.

In fact these rules in Vietnam are applied in very few cases and the vast majority of strikes in the country, as happens in China with the "work stoppages" are "illegal" or, at best, “non-legal".

The formal conception of unions in both countries also contains ideas such as "it is a function of unions to educate workers". And above all, the search for "harmonious solutions to conflicts" or "the common interests of the company and workers", namely: it is not legally assumed that unions represent the interests of one of the sides in industrial relations, but they must play rather a role of "mediation".

In the interviews carried out in both countries with leaders of these unions, also it appeared the consideration that an essential function of the union ─even the only one, according to some union officials─ is to ensure "labour law enforcement"[10].

This mismatch between the legal framework and real life requires addressing what is the reality of trade unionism in both countries from the perspective of working conditions and their evolution, the organization of workers and trade union action, strikes included, with or without the tutelage of other social, political or administrative authorities.

The usual answer, especially in China, regarding this kind of considerations on freedom of association and the right to strike, is that these are proposals aimed at torpedoing the socialist regime. This official argument is obviously confronted with international standards such as the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

But also, it can be confronted in historical terms with the statements made by Lenin in January 1921, in his controversy about the proposal of Trotsky, when the latter called for the militarization of trade unions. Lenin noted that the confrontation between workers with the soviet government (the Party) it is not only possible, but even necessary in some cases. The reason, according to Lenin, is that “the unions ... will not lose in many years a base as the 'economic struggle' no of class, in the sense of struggle against bureaucratic distortions of the Soviet administration, in the sense of defense of the material and spiritual interests of the mass from the workers…"[11].

2. Trade unionism, its organization and action at the official structures and in the workplaces[12]

The trade union landscape in China, according to the official data for 2014, is as follows: an economically active population of around 797 million people; 772 million employed people; and 280 million members of the AFCTU[13]. As for Vietnam, the official statistics give us the following figures also for 2014: an economically active population of 53,7 million people; 52,7 million employed people; and around 8 million members of the VGCL[14]

Now, if we move the focus from the macro to the micro level, it is worth noting that many workers interviewed in Chinese and Vietnamese factories with high rate of union density stated that they were not affiliated to those unions. Or, even so, they were unaware of their activity at the workplace.

It can be said that it is really not possible to compare the above figures with those of the International Trade Union Confederation, which states a membership of around 180 million people; or with the World Federation of Trade Unions, with 90 million people.

This particular concept of "affiliation" is complemented by the system of union dues. It is formally a double fee: the one paid by each affiliate, and the one paid by companies directly to the union (2% of the wage bill, although with increasing difficulties in private companies). Around half of all paid dues is for the higher level structures and the rest for the "union" activity in the company, which are mainly for recreational activities and welfare type.

The affiliates are paid by payroll deducted in very few of the companies visited in both countries and were fixed in 1% of individual salary, but observed were between 0.75 and 1.75 € per month in Vietnam and 0.3 € in China.

It is worth noting that in most of the factories visited, the formal workers' representatives said they do not negotiate salaries. Nevertheless, in recent years they began to comment that "sometimes speak of wages", although it is rather to examine the proper application of labour law. Regarding this issue, it is possible to remark rising trade union awareness in Vietnam compared with the situation in China.

Another key element is how the leading bodies of the trade unions are conformed in the workplaces. In both countries there are very detailed and complex rules, but they do not apply in any of the factories visited in China to Vietnam. There is a widespread practice of an alleged consensus to take up such functions by some people, almost all technical or administrative, mostly managers or from the personnel department. Also, in many cases taking many times the role of President of the Union is played by the chief of staff or the production manager.

The members of such trade union bodies told us many times that for this function were suggested or proposed by the business or middle management direction. In a Chinese factory where the union president was at once the chief of staff, the owner of the company told us that "he had been hired for both functions".

It is important to note anyway some differences of degree between both countries, being more extended in China situations such as the common interests or the simultaneity of the roles among the leading bodies of employers and employees. Theses differences can also been noted with regard to the evaluation of trade unions. In China, trade unions state that these situations happen mostly because workers want. Furthermore, the leading body of the ACFTU explained us without blushing that a “pilot project” was launched at Guandong province, consisting on the application of a “new rule” that forbids to the owner or manager of a company, or their relatives, being “union leaders”.

These situations also can be registered in Vietnam, but there is an increasing awareness inside VGCL about the need of changing the representation procedures, and also regarding the improvement of skills training in order to engage in effective collective bargaining with foreign buyers and their suppliers[15].

In this regard, it is worth noting a recent experience held in this country in 2015. Specifically, it consisted of a meeting of union members of textile companies from the north of Vietnam, suppliers of the Spanish company Inditex. The goal of this meeting, coordinated by the VCGL, IndustryALL, Global Union ante the Vietnam Office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, was to launch a national Trade Union network of the suppliers of Inditex, which is planned to be created in 2016. The Vietnamese Trade Union Confederation, committed with this project, has assumed the challenge and the risk of promoting an effective representation of delegates for the participation in the national Assembly.

3. Collective bargaining[16]

The labour law in both countries establishes a set of provisions about the concept and procedures of the collective bargaining at company level and, just only in Vietnam, also for the sectoral level.

The Labour Law of the People's Republic Of China (1994, articles 33 to 35) regulates the procedures for the negotiation of company-level company agreements, on matters relating to labour remuneration, working hours, rest and vacations, occupational safety and health, insurance and welfare. The law also regulates the relation between this agreements and the labour contracts, establishing that “the standards of working conditions and labour remuneration agreed upon in labour contracts concluded between individual labourers and the enterprise shall not be lower than those stipulated in the collective contract” (article 35).

The regulation of this topic in the Labour Code of Vietnam (2012) is significantly wider, including a specific chapter on "Dialogue at workplace, collective bargaining, collective bargaining agreements” (chapter V). There is a more detailed set up of procedural provisions but the most interesting issue, as noted above, is the regulation of the collective bargaining at sectoral level. In this regard, the law establishes a hierarchy between both levels of bargaining, with a prevalence of the sectoral over the company-level agreements[17].

Against this legal framework, the collective bargaining according the international standards and ILO conventions is practically non-existent. Collective bargaining is widely regarded as a formality rather than the outcome of real negotiations between workers and employers. As example, in Vietnam “according to the VGCL informant, most workers do not know the contents of the active collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) in their companies. Some cannot even tell the difference between the CBA and labour contracts”[18]

However, statistics provided by the trade unions highlight an important number of collective agreements. For example, in a meeting held in China in 2015 with the AFCTU, we were told that in 2013 there were registered 2,4 million collective agreements covering 300 million workers, with a target of a coverage of 500 million workers for the end of 2015.

The findings of the interviews carried out in China and Vietnam, and the analysis of the contents of some company-level company agreements, shows a similar pattern in both countries. Thus, it is called "collective agreement" to what has been formally signed by the union leadership in the company and the direction of it, and its contents usually consist of a brief reference or transcription of the existing legislation on minimum wages, working hours, quotes social security or in some cases references to a supplement, to the price of the litter in China, or to the parking the bike in Vietnam. In some few cases there have been found provisions related to the bonus, but never to issues regarding topics such as work organization, bonus system or trade union rights.

It is worth noting that these situations of little real collective bargaining can also be found in virtually all the countries with presence of the production chains of the global brands of wear and garment. At the same time, it is fair to recognize the potential advantage of China and Vietnam regarding the number of such “collective agreements”, as they can be starting points for an effective collective bargaining.

In Vietnam there is sectoral collective agreement, the first of this kind, signed in 2010. It has a limited coverage, affecting to a number of 100 companies and around 100 thousand workers of the garment industry. In spite of this low coverage and of the reduced scope of its contents, it is worth highlighting at least for two reasons: on the one hand, because as noted above is the first sectoral collective agreement at national level. On the other hand, because it links the regulation of the strikes to the collective bargaining, so it allows the possibility of “national” strikes.

The limitations of this agreement shows those of the own trade union, whose sectoral organization is still very minority compared to the territorial and local structure. These limitations are also evident in the ignorance of this agreement by the union leadership of Ho Chi Minh City, as well as by executives and unions of the companies we visited.

The national sector federation of textile and the Vietnamese Confederation affirmed their willingness to extend the effectiveness of the sectoral agreement while developing its contents, both in relation to the salary and of issues related to working conditions, working time in particular. Also, they noted that the importance to link the sectoral collective agreement to the Code of Conduct and the company agreement of Inditex with IndustryALL.

4. Evolution of working and life conditions[19]

Over the last 10 years, living conditions in China and Vietnam have had a remarkably similar evolution, assuming in both countries major improvements but with significant quantitative differences between them. Thus, in China the minimum wages -different according to regions- have risen from 30-65 euros per month in 2006 to 250-300 euros in 2015. In Vietnam, they have improved from 36 € in 2009 to a range between 90 and 130 € in 2015. However, these are minimum wages for the formal economy with a difficult implementation in the underground economy.

The actual remuneration of a employee at the garment industry, as tested in production chains of the big brands of clothing, were between 100 and 140 euros in 2006 in China, and came to be between 270 and 500 €. In Vietnam, actual remunerations evolved from 46 to 80 € in 2009 to 200 to 300 in 2015. All this for an effective working hours, including additional hours, which has hardly evolved over the years and remains between 2,300 and 3,000 hours year.

It is also noted a certain evolution in living conditions in Chinese factories, where living quarters with bunk beds for workers in large factories away from urban areas could host in 2006 from 8 to 10 people in spaces 3 8 meters and 10 to 12 berths (the "surplus" served to deposit the goods of the working poor); in 2015 they were destined for 5 or 6 people. It was also possible to observe some increase in television in such spaces, as open windows to the world through the chains that censors allowed to "invade" his country.

The audited figures on wages coincide with the official statistics of both countries regarding the evolution of living conditions and poverty. It should be added, however, that this progress has occurred in parallel with the huge increase in inequalities, so that China is today one of the most unequal countries in Asia. This is expressed by indicator such as the Gini index: thus, according to some sources this indicator has increased from a value around 0,35 in both countries at the end of the XX century, to a value of 0,38 in Vietnam and 0,46 in China in 2015[20].

In particular, international institutions have remarked that the current process of industrialization and the consolidation of a growing industrial labour force, have favoured that many people from rural areas have escaped from the situation of monetary poverty. However, the results of empirical studies show that this process is not without contradictions, due to high insecurity and harsh working conditions that characterize industrial jobs; a fact that in many cases is causing the return of workers, especially of women to rural areas of origin[21].

It is possible to point out that the above noted evolution of living conditions in both countries has been influenced among other factors by the global struggle for "decent" work, the direct assumption of that objective by political and social organizations of each country, and the influence of the Codes of Conduct and Framework Agreements signed by the multinationals who buy in both countries.

Nevertheless, some relevant differences can be found again between China and Vietnam, regarding the trade unions’ approaches on the concept of decent work.

For example, in China the ACFTU has so far claimed placed outside Global Framework Agreements in the country[22] and has established a Code of self Conduct, almost copied from the first drafted the BSCI[23] textile sector (although we found that its existence is ignored by both the entrepreneurs like structures ACFTU companies or territorial).

In Vietnam, by contrast, the VGCL has considered that the implementation of the Global Framework Agreement with Inditex can help improve working conditions in the sector of clothing and footwear and raised incorporate application sectoral collective agreement above mentioned. Based on these approaches, we are working to advance the unionization of its implementation and monitoring through the creation of the Union Network Inditex suppliers in the country, which is a global pioneering experience in the trade union organization subcontracting chains.

5. The strike[24]

The positive evolution of living conditions in both countries have undoubtedly been influenced by the policies of the respective governments, whose anti-crisis policies since 2008 have included among other measures increases of the minimum wages, aimed to boost its domestic market by increasing purchasing power.

In parallel, it is possible to ask about the influence of the industrial action carried out by both of the “official” and real unionism, and particularly of the strikes. Once more, some differences can be found between the two countries.

Thus, in China there is as noted above an “official voluntary ignorance” of the phenomenon of strikes. The own statistics of the Ministry of Public Security shows, however, an increasing of the social unrest in the country, from 74.000 conflicts in 2004 to 200.000 in 2012[25].

In Vietnam, official figures show an increasing in the number of strikes in the past decade, from 147 in 2005 to 293 in 2014. This rising trend is also remarked by the findings of the academic research, which has highlighted that Vietnam has witnessed more strikes than any other Asian country in the last decade, in spite of its vibrant economy[26].

They may be of interest to some references to some of the major strikes carried out in both countries.

The strike movement in China was very active in 2010, especially in the automotive industry. Also, this year and the following were marked by strikes in the electronic, gas and electric sectors. The comments and valuations taken in the field during our visits, particularly with the delegation of the ICEM[27] in July 2010, suggested a conscious tolerance on the government side about these strikes.

In April 2014 it took place one of the most important strikes in the recent history of China. In the town of Donguang, Guangdong Province broke a strike of two weeks with the participation of the vast majority of the 45,000 workers of the factories Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings. This is a Taiwanese company based in Hong Kong, considered the largest producer of footwear sports world and works for Nike, Adidas, Timberland, Puma, Crocs and others.

The main reason for this conflict was that the company did not pay the social contributions according to the real wages (around 350 Euros per month), but according to the basic wages of the region (around 200 euros). The company didn’t pay either the “funds for housing”, and also there were problems of schooling for many workers’ child as a consequence of the regulation of the migration.

The strike was developed with major demonstrations and occupation of the workplace. In the little information transpired on this conflict[28] there is a brief reference about an attempt to mediate by the official ACFTU union, which was rejected by the strikers. Some strike leaders were arrested on charges of "public disorder", "obstruction of road traffic" and "spreading false news", but they were quickly released. Finally, the government forced the company to pay the contributions, and it also accepted a wage increase of about 30 € per month. Some media compared the significance of this strike with that registered in the automotive sector in 2010.

In June 2014, China Daily (official English-language newspaper) reported that Fujian arbitral tribunal had ruled in favour of workers after a strike of two weeks. The newspaper highlighted that “so far the courts and arbitral authorities did not support the positions of the workers if they defended their rights to strike”.

As for the strikes developed in Vietnam, it is interesting to address one experience that took place in 2015, as we could test in our last travel to the country. In early April, a major strike broke out in a footwear company in the area of Ho Chi Minh City. It was the company Pou Yuen, Taiwanese-owned, with 90,000 workers who produce shoes for Nike, Adidas and other brands. The reason was the draft amendment of the regulation in the country of retirement benefits for which hitherto existed a complex formula that allowed collectability, as single or installment payment before retirement age (60 for men and 55 for women) if they were quoted a sufficient number of years (20 according to some documentation). The strike lasted a week and it included different actions such as the occupation of the workplace and exits to the street, with no serious incidents. The workers returned to work when the government pledged to reconsider the issue.

We could see the impact of this strike in the factories visited by asking the interviewed workers and trade unionists, and also employers. There was a first remarkable check: talking of "strike" was no longer a taboo subject. Quite a few workers said they knew the strike and its essential content (retirement benefits); also, that they have heard of the strike both in "radio and television" as in "meetings in the union".

In one of the companies visited, workers indicated that they had made a 2-day strike for the same reason, concurring with that of Pou Yuen. This was recognized by the governing body of the union. They explained how it happened: during lunch in the canteen someone said he had seen on the internet about the strike was proceeding, and they decided to join immediately. Almost no one returned to his job. Union leaders of the company met with their managers and claimed that there should not be any sanction, letting the workers went home, and that they would report on the subject, so that the next day could give explanations. So it was done.

The next day the workers went to work but did not start waiting for such information. A local union leader, along with those of the company, explained the reasons for the strike and the government's commitment to reconsider the issue.  The workers decided to continue the strike the second day, and the company accepted the proposal of their return to their homes. The following day employees resumed work, and the two days of strike were considered as holidays.

In this company the union leaders indicated that there were also a strike in other places, but its development was more complicated by the absence of trade union or trade union initiative in them. During our stay, "Vietnam News" included several references to the meeting of the National Assembly that was taking place and on possible amendments to the law on Social Security 2014 Article 60, which had motivated the strike.

This is the only recent conflict commented on our visit to the factories. In one, we were told that "until 2009" there had been some conflicts because "prices rose more than wages"

A few days after our last stay in Vietnam, Vietnam press reported about  a  6-day strike carried out by 1,100 workers in a garment factory.  Drawn on information from the union of the town the press noted that, as a result of the strike, the company accepted a wage increase, the construction of a parking lot for motorcycles and measures aimed to ensure safe water of the company. The newspaper added that workers also claimed for other issues such as the rest on Sundays and end the working day on Saturday at 4 and ½ in the afternoon. The resolution of these claims was still pending.

To conclude: it is possible to affirm that strikes are increasingly assumed as a normal fact related to the development of industrial relations in Vietnam. On the contrary, talking about this topic is still almost a taboo issue in China.

6. Final remarks: reform or rupture

The Chinese and Vietnamese labour movements are definitely in a transition phase, and even under strain in a context of implementation in both countries of the market economy and its integration into the global world economy. There are now processes of union action that go beyond official political and union structures. Against this background, it would be very audacious to establish any certainty about the future developments of these phenomena.

Clearly, it is emerging in both countries a new unionism, but it is still risky to predict whether it will lead to the marginalization of the existing structures, or if the result will be an integration of the new union leaders arising from the current mobilizations and strikes, with some of the union officers of the current ACFTU and VGCL. It remains to be seen what role they might play unionists emerged from each of the two sources. It seems greater the capacity of the Vietnamese official unions to integrate new union leaders arising from trade union action.

It seems clear in any case that part of the current "union" structures will lead to management, outside of the union action, of the great resources that have accumulated with the "union dues" paid for years by companies.

One element influencing the development of this transition will be surely the understanding that the role of trade unionism is necessarily different in a planned economy, based on the public ownership of the means of production, of one that it is taking hold through the already advanced privatization processes or new private equity investments, national or foreign, in a "market economy with own traits".

This is a highly relevant issue in Vietnam given the current involvement of the country in negotiating free trade agreements, including the Agreement between the United States and Vietnam and the Trans-Pacific Agreement. Both agreements pose significant challenges, because if on the one hand they recognize the role of trade unions, on the other strengthen the unilateral power of transnational corporations of foreign capital on the legal regulations on living and working conditions in the country.

The labour movements of Chinese and Vietnamese, based to a greater or lesser extent in the current official union structures, will play undoubtedly an important role in the future unionism, responding to the current global labour crisis, and consciously taking its integration into the global working class.

The incorporation of the working class of both countries to the global trade union movement will be definitely a new opportunity to address the current crisis, broader than an economic crisis, and that translates into a crisis response capacity of national institutions and supranational including trade unions This is leading to a global to debate about the need to "rethink", "reinvent" or "renew" the trade unions[29].

The necessary construction of a global trade unionism, integrating of labour movements that organize the working class in all areas and at all levels, must also consciously assume the existence of interest not necessarily common in such areas and levels, and at the same time try find their synthesis in all of them. The immediate future labour movements in China and Vietnam can play an important role in this scenario with one condition: to get organize and represent in a real way the working class of their country.

Therefore, the relationship of the global trade unionism with new labour movements under construction in China and Vietnam constitutes a matter of obvious interest. There is now, in the most diverse areas of world trade unionism, a debate on this issue that occasionally emerges with remarkable intensity. From these pages we wish to emphasize its importance, contributing with our analysis to this process of the official transition from the real unionism, and our hope of its success.

Madrid, April 2017


- CHENG, J. Y. S., NGOK, K y ZHUANG, W.: «The Survival and Development Space for China's Labor NGOs, Informal Politics and Its Uncertainty»,Asia Survey,Vol. 50, No. 6 (November/December 2010), pp. 1082-1106.

-ZHANG, X., WANG, X., y ZHU, X.: «THE ECONOMIC ANALYSIS OF CURRENT STRIKES IN CHINA», World Review of Political Economy, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Fall 2011), pp. 371-384.

-POCHA, J. S.: «One Sun in the Sky: Labor Unions in the People's Republic of China», Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Winter/Spring 2007), pp. 5-11.

-TYSON, J. L.: «Labor Unions in South Vietnam»,Asian Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Nov. - Dec., 1974), pp. 70-82.


Isidor Boix Lluch

Responsible for CSR-CSR at the International Secretariat of CCOO-Industry and Coordinator of the International Trade Union Federation "IndustriALL Global Union" for the Global Framework Agreement with INDITEX, the world's leading clothing distributor.

Fernando Rocha Sánchez

Degree in Sociology and Master in Labor Relations. Director of the Studies area of the 1º de Mayo Foundation

[1] Article requested by the magazine “Workers of the World, International Journal on Strikes and Social Conflict” in July 2015. In reply to this proposal, a first draft was sent in 2016 and was positively evaluated in May 2016. It was recommended for publication, with a few specific considerations that were accepted by the authors. In June 2016, a final draft was sent in Spanish and English. However, to date Workers of the World has neither published the article nor sent any modifications.

Therefore, in February 2017, the authors decided to make the situation known. There have been two more trade union visits to these countries in 2017, which confirm the observations made in these pages. The respective reports are available at http://www.industria.ccoo.es/cms/g/public/o/8/o164503.pdf?platform=hootsuite and http://iboix.blogspot.com.es/2016/12/vietnam-2016-red-sindical-nacional-de.html. The data provided by both reports confirms the observations made in the article and underlines the divergent processes taking place in both countries: in China, refusing to participate in global trade unionism in the defence of decent work in its supply chains belonging to multinationals; and in Vietnam, culminating with the creation of a National Trade Union Network of Inditex suppliers in the county, in collaboration with global trade union authorities.

[2] As an example: the wave of strikes taking place in 2010 in China in different factories of transnational corporations or, more tragically, the suicides of workers by the harsh working conditions in factories like Foxconn. See TRAUB-MERZ, R. Wage Strikes and Trade Unions in China – End of the Low-wage Policy? Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Berlín, June 2011.14 pp. ZHANG, X.; WANG, X., and ZHU, X.: “The economic analysis of current strikes in China”, World Review of Political Economy, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Fall 2011), pp. 371-384. SCHWEISSHELM, E. Trade Unions in Transition. Changing industrial relations in Vietnam. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Vietnam Office. September 2014. ANNER, M. “Labor Control Regimes and Worker Resistance in Global Supply Chains”, Labor History, 56(3), 2015 (pp 292-307)-

[3] These factories are integrated in the value chain of the Spanish companies INDITEX and MANGO. Isidor Boix visited these factories as member of the international department of the Spanish trade union “Comisiones Obreras” CCOO.  Specifically, he made eight travels to China and four to Vietnam. The last reports of this this visits can be found (in Spanish) in: http://www.industria.ccoo.es/comunes/recursos/99927/doc245349_China_-_2015_Una_nueva_aproximacion_sindical_-_VII_-.pdf
[4]  The project Strengthening Workers’ Rights and Representation (SWORR) was funded by the European Commission and it was carried out between 2012 and 2015 by a partnership including different trade unions and Academic institutions from Vietnam and Europe. Fernando Rocha, the other author of this article, was involved in some phases of this project. The basic information can be found in http://sworr.ies.gov.vn/.
[5] However, there are still some points of controversy. For example, there is an ongoing dispute about the recognition for China of the status of “market economy status” under the World Trade Organisation. See PUCCIO, Laura. Granting Market Economy to China. An analysis of WTO law and of selected WTO members' policy. European Parliamentary Research Service. November 2015.
[6] See BOIX, op.cit.
[7] This law was firstly adopted on 1950, then reworked in 1991 and later modified in 2001.
[8] Amended in 2013
[9] Amended in 2012.

[10] These interviews were carried out by BOIX (see op.cit.).
[11] Lenin, Wladimir. “Insistiendo sobre los sindicatos”, Obras Escogidas, Tomo III, pagina 583, Editorial Progreso, Moscú 1961, Instituto de Marxismo-Leninismo del CC del PCUS (own translation from Spanish to English).

[12] The analysis of this section combines the information provided by the official statistics and the trade; unions, with the empirical data reached in the visits of one of the authors as member of an international trade union delegation to factories in China and Vietnam.
[13] Source: China Statistical Yearbook 2015. Nacional Bureau of Statistics of China. And  AFCTU for data of union membership.
[14] Sources: Vietnam Statistical Yearbook 2014. General Office of Statistics of Vietnam. VGCL National Review Conference, 2015

[15] Khanh, Do Ta.-SWORR Fieldwork Research: Synthesis Report. Institute for European Studies, Hanoi, Vietnam. August, 2015. Ngọc Trần, A. “Vietnamese Textile and Garment Industry in the Global Supply Chain: State Strategies and Workers’ Responses”, Institutions and Economies, Vol. 4, No. 3, October 2012, pp. 123-150.
[16] See footnote 11.

[17] For example, it is established that “where the contents of an enterprise-level collective bargaining agreement or other regulations of the employer on the lawful rights, responsibilities and interests of the enterprise’s employees are less favourable than those stipulated in the sectoral collective bargaining agreement, the enterprise-level collective bargaining agreement shall be revised accordingly within 03 months from the date on which the sectoral collective bargaining agreement comes into effect” (article 881.).
[18] Fair Wear Foundation: FWF Country Study Vietnam. 2015 (p.25).

[19] See footnote nº 11.
[20] Source: Statista (http://www.statista.com/) for China, and World Bank for Vietnam.

[21] Cerimele, Michela. SWORR Project. Female Internal Migrant Workers at Thang Long Industrial Park. A Qualitative Case-Study. Author: Dr. Michela Cerimele, University of Naples L’Orientale. March 2015
[22]  In the last two trips with official meetings, the ACFTU has stated that the application of these agreements is "under consideration". They have not yet accepted our suggestion to consider a protocol for implementing the Code of Conduct of Inditex, linked to the Global Framework Agreement with IndustriALL Global Union.
[23] Business Social Compliance Initiative, commitment to corporate social responsibility promoted by major multinational European industry and distribution whose first approaches were criticized by European and international trade union movement for its lack of transparency.
[24] See footnote 11.

[25] It is worth noting that different reports warn about the underestimation of the extent of social unrest in China in the official figures. See for example GÖBEL, Christian and ONG, Lynnete. Social unrest in China. Europe China Research and Advise Network. London, 2012.
[26] KAXTON, Siu; and CHAN, Anita. “Strike Wave in Vietnam, 2006–2011”, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 45, nº 1, 2015 (pp. 71-91).
[27] International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions, currently integrated in the IndustryALL Global Union.
[28] Basically provided by Association Press.

[29] See for example, for the European context: BERNACIAK, Magdalena; GUMBRELL-MCCORMICK, Rebecca; and HYMAN, Richard. European trade unionism: from crisis to renewal? European Trade Union Institute, Report nº 133, Brussels, 2014.

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