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Amended union congress constitution stresses members' rights

China's officially recognized All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is to draft guidelines allowing grassroots-level election of labor union leaders under its jurisdiction, RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese services report.

"The ACFTU will promote the popular vote to elect grassroots trade union leaders as a main task in the next few years," ACFTU official Guo Wencai announced. Currently, most official trade unions under the ACFTU's umbrella elect leaders through a committee controlled by the executive, although pilot elections have been held in some areas since 1999.

Meanwhile, several highly placed Chinese academics detailed a litany of unpaid wages, physical abuse, and appalling safety standards. Legal specialists welcomed the move as a strengthening of the rule of law.

ACFTU chairman Wang Zhaoguo told the congress that "frequent incidents involving violation of workers' rights in some areas have had a negative impact on social stability and economic development."

He cited a survey that found a total estimated unpaid wage bill of U.S. $4.8 billion still on the books of employers nationwide, most of them ailing state-owned enterprises. For migrant workers from rural areas, the estimated unpaid wage tab was reaching U.S. $12 billion every year, he said.

While ACFTU now claims 134 million members, up from 90 million five years ago, it has yet to become a serious force acting for workers' rights, and has long been regarded as a tool for Communist Party control.

The move toward directly elected leaders was the culmination of consultations and experiments in key areas, especially in the eastern city of Hangzhou. The federation is the only body permitted to represent Chinese workers, and it has long been tightly controlled by the party. Leaders of unofficial labor unions are routinely arrested and given heavy jail sentences.

However, the organization's first steps towards a more democratic system�coupled with its decision to allow migrant workers from rural areas to join its ranks, and an amendment to its constitution mandating it to put workers' rights and interests first�show a keen awareness in Beijing that the growing number of industrial disputes and abuse of workers could be the Communist Party's downfall.

While Guo said the plan was to move toward a popular ballot for all grassroots union leaders, no timetable was set out at the ACFTU National Congress from Sept. 22-26 in Beijing.

"Practical guidelines for the voting are lacking," Guo said, adding that they would now be drafted.

"From the language of the new union regulations, you can see some tendency in trying to distinguish the functions of government from those of the union," said Li Qiang of the U.S.-based China Labor Bulletin. "But the union is still controlled by the government�it�s still a government-run union. The division of government and union functions will probably be realized in the future."

Human rights organizations welcomed the announcement but said more needed to be done to ensure that elected union leaders have enough clout to defend workers' rights.

"Elected leaders are often ignored by higher-ups in the union when they try to communicate workers' concerns such as payment of wages, pensions, and insurance," said Robin Munro, a Hong Kong-based author and human rights activist.

"We hope the formal election process is accompanied by a push to make leaders accountable and really represent the problems of the workers," he added.

Migrant peasant workers are now entitled to join the union, under the new constitution. According to the ACFTU statistics, the number of migrant workers has reached more than 94 million and is increasing by 5 million each year.

"In coastal areas in particular, the majority of the migrant workers are from inland rural areas," Huang Shuming, a U.S.-based anthropologist, said in an interview. "Granting these peasant workers rights to join the union is the first step toward protecting labor interests."

"We will probably see some degree of perfunctoriness at the beginning," he added. "Now, workers are no longer illiterate or elementary school graduates, and their understanding of and efforts in striving for their own rights will increase. In a few years, as labor unions become mature and well established, they will achieve greater independence and function free of the government control, thus becoming capable of fully representing workers� rights."

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