Under the jurisdiction of China’s planned economy, the hukou, or household registration, system became the primary means of determining a citizen’s lifelong eligibility for welfare benefits, housing subsidies, and wage rates. Rural and urban residents could expect substantially different salaries and benefits, and, while there was some latitude for the transfer of registration from countryside to city, these transfers are generally reserved for those who serve in the army, attend a city university, or rise within the party organization. While this system is breaking down, inter-provincial immigrants to urban settlements often continue to face discrimination and unequal access to employment, education, and housing due to their rural origins.
To safeguard immigrant worker rights, the Quanzhou City Federation of Trade Unions has begun a new model for labor-capital relationships to benefit both workers and employers. This model consists of three innovations: first, immigrant workers in Quanzhou are officially designated “New Quanzhounese,” and a part of the working class. Families who have received this designation have equal access to compulsory education; workers can also run for local office. Under the slogan “Workers Respect Enterprises, Enterprises Respect Workers,” the Federation of Trade Unions holds training sessions to increase the skills of rural-to-urban migrants and to generate mutual understanding between laborers and employers.
Second, job security remains a persistent issue in immigrant labor rights; therefore, to further the stability of immigrant employment, the Federation has lobbied to combine individual job contracts and collective contracts to protect the larger interests of the New Quanzhounese. Third, by establishing three levels of trade unions, networks for ensuring workers rights extend to the neighborhood level: these three levels operate in the town (or street), village (or community), or enterprise. The city establishes trade unions on any street or in any community with more than ten businesses or an industrial project with a value over 20 million yuan (approximately $2.58 million U.S.), or in any enterprise with more than 25 staff members. By the end of 2004, there were 161 street-level, over 1,600 village-level, and 19,220 enterprise-level trade unions, totaling a membership of 1,265,000. Of these one million workers, 800,000 members are immigrants.
Additionally, the Federation also operates a social network to integrate immigrant workers into Quanzhou’s urban life: the Quanzhou Federation of Trade Unions is active in cooperating with media, commercial departments, enterprises, social organizations, and social groups to advocate for immigrant labor rights. It has set up a radio program with the Quanzhou Radio Station and has established a hotline for reporting rights abuses. The Federation also hosts a program for tips on speedy employment with the Quanzhou Television Station.
Since the initiation of the Quanzhou Federation of Trade Unions’ new model for the protection of immigrant labor rights, more than one hundred million yuan (approximately U.S. $12.91 million) in salaries due to workers has been paid. More than three thousand workers have received employment assistance. Thirty-two immigrant workers have been recognized as Model Workers at or above the municipal level, and more than 80,000 New Quanzhounese children have been enrolled in state schools. After the establishment of a regional rights protection model, more than 2,000 enterprises have agreed to pay full monthly salaries to immigrants, while more than 4,000 have signed regional collective agreements. In the past two years, labor dispute case rates have dropped by 15%. In part due to the active role Quanzhou City has played in integrating immigrant laborers into the city as a whole, it has been recognized as an “Excellent City in Public Order and Comprehensive Governance” at the national level for four consecutive years, from 2001 to 2004. As the powers of these trade unions increase, they are beginning to work independently from local government authority and are partnering more directly with business owners to create better working environments for their members.
The All-China Federation of Trade Unions has recognized this innovative model for safeguarding immigrant labor rights for its innovations in generating labor/enterprise accords and social stability in Quanzhou.