The Relationship between Labour NGOs and Chinese Workers in an Authoritarian Regime

Anita Chan’s, The Relationship between Labour NGOs and Chinese Workers in an Authoritarian Regime, is an important recent article that discusses the role of labour Non-governmental organisations (LNGOs) in China and how their relationships with workers have changed over the past three decades. Chan explains how in a situation where the party-state’s All-China Federation of Trade Unions has hardly changed its function, and continues to work with government and management, the role of LNGOs as an alternative in assisting workers’ labour protection has moved from one of dependency to one of a more equal partnership with Hong Kong LNGOs and overseas funders. Moreover, despite the increasingly repressive political environment, as signified by the series of crackdowns on NGO activists, as well as the implementation of the Overseas NGO Management Law in 2017, some workers have been more successful with autonomous organizing.

Nevertheless, the article identifies different approaches that have emerged amongst Hong Kong LNGOs as the relationships have evolved. While on the one hand some Hong Kong LNGOs that, “trust and respect their Chinese counterparts see themselves as partners and see their role today as facilitators of the labour movement inside China”, on the other hand there are still those that will not relinquish their patronage relationship and “continue to use their own access to funds to intervene in and direct the activities of their Chinese counterparts according to their own or foreign funders’ agendas”. Chan argues that this has sometimes led to contention between workers and LNGOs.

In illustrating the above point, the article looks at the case of Walmart workers and their recent labour struggles against Walmart, including its introduction of a new “flexible” working hours system, and how, as a result of the emergence of labour agency among Chinese workers, distrust existed in the relationship between some of the LNGOs and workers. Chan describes how during these struggles, differences emerged over strategy between some of the workers and the agendas of some LNGOs and a lawyer that advised them, resulting in open confrontations, accusations and personal attacks in internet chat rooms. Consequently this caused confusion amongst workers, placing the company in a stronger position to retaliate against worker activists.

As a result of this situation for LNGOs and their relationships with workers, the article points out that for the first time questions are emerging about the extent to which LNGOs should be influencing labour protests and strikes, whether LNGOs necessarily have the same interests as workers, and about the need to redefine the role of LNGOs role in the movement. Chan furthermore observes how, while international solidarity is welcomed by workers, some do not want outsider agendas forced on them.

Anita Chan’s article was published in the Global Labour Journal and can be viewed here. A Chinese translation can be found here.