Australian Rulers’ Union Busting Drive against the CFMEU Union Threatens Construction Workers’ Lives
22 November 2016: Remember the days when hardly a fortnight would go by without the Australian media reporting a major work accident in China that killed dozens of workers? To be sure, China is the world’s most populous country – with about 60 times the population of Australia – so everything both bad and good necessarily happens on a huge scale. Furthermore, the mainstream Western media have always been looking for any means to paint a bad picture of the socialistic Peoples Republic of China (PRC). Nevertheless, it is true that China did have poor workplace safety. The country is industrialising and developing so fast that there was a period when the technological level and safety systems simply did not keep up – leading to dangerous workplace environments. Furthermore, the late 1980s, 1990s and first couple of years of this century was a period when China’s private sector expanded in influence relative to the state-owned sector which, nevertheless, to this day still dominates the pillars of the PRC’s economy. But it is in the private sector where workplace safety is at its worst including in the foreign-invested industries owned by Hong Kong, Taiwanese, American, Singaporean, Japanese and Australian bosses.
Thankfully, all this is becoming in significant part old news. Through a combination of nationalisation of formerly privately owned mines, the closure of smaller, unsafe private-sector mines, a 2008 pro-worker industrial relations law, increased government emphasis on workplace safety and spirited repression of greedy bosses responsible for workplace accidents, the Peoples Republic of China has dramatically reduced deaths from workplace accidents over the last 15 years. China’s workplace safety issue is still serious and, as a gigantic country with often large-size operations, when China does have work accidents they are often on a huge scale. Yet, the PRC’s achievements in improving workplace safety are so dramatic and the failure of greedy Aussie bosses to provide a safe workplace here so harmful that it is now safer to be a worker in China than it is to be one in Australia.
So what are the hard facts on this comparison of workplace safety in Australia and the PRC. There are some complications in comparing statistics because each country lists workplace deaths in different ways. In particular, in China, a death in a traffic accident has long been listed as a ‘workplace death.’ The inclusion of traffic accidents in workplace accident statistics artificially inflates China’s workplace accident figures – especially since China still has a long way to go in solving its traffic safety problems. Although there has been a recent change to classification methods in China that somewhat addresses this issue, the overall classification method used there is still quite different to that used in Australia because non-workers killed in transport accidents involving transport workers are still considered workplace fatalities. Thus, occupants in non-work related cars who die in a collision with a truck or tourist passengers on a bus or a boat/ship/ferry who die in an accident are categorised among workplace accident statistics. So, too, it seems do many transport deaths of workers travelling to and from work. China does, however, additionally collate figures for total deaths in mining, industrial and commercial enterprises in a way that makes it easier to compare with Australian figures. These show that in 2015 there were 1.07 deaths in China per 100,000 employees. That is considerably less than the death rate in Australian workplaces which was 1.6 per 100,000 employees in 2014 (Safe Work Australia, Table 2.3 – number and incidence rate of injury-related fatalities by industry [2010 to 2014]) which at the time of writing was the latest year at which these statistics were collated for Australia. Since the Chinese figures appear to exclude deaths in the public administration sector and in most agricultural and fishing industries, we should exclude deaths in these sectors (and the total number of workers in these sectors) from the Australian figures to ensure that they form an equivalent comparison to the Chinese statistics. This drops the death rate at Australian workplaces to 1.29 per 100,000 employees (there was a high rate of deaths in the agricultural and fishery industry and, thus, excluding this industry from the figures brings down Australia’s average death rate in workplaces). However, that is still significantly higher than the comparable figure in China. Put in plain terms: when an average worker in Australia goes to work in a mining, industrial or commercial enterprise and an average worker in China does the same, the worker in Australia is 21% more likely to get killed in a work accident that day than the worker in China. In future it will be harder to make such comparisons between workplace safety in Australia and China due to new differences in statistical methods. Starting from 2016, the calculated death rate for work accidents in industrial, mining and commercial enterprises calculated in China will exclude workers employed in non-production areas in these sectors (like, say, clerical support staff and other office staff). This is unlike the figures reported in Australia where death rates per 100,000 employees include these staff. Since the death rate amongst these latter type of workers is much lower than production and maintenance workers, the new statistical method in China will in future tend to over-report their workplace death rate relative to the method used in Australia.
Due to the scale of enterprises in China, China’s biggest workplace accidents still tend to kill many more people than the biggest accidents in Australia. However, Australia has, proportionate to its workforce, so many more, smaller fatal workplace accidents than China does that overall it is now more dangerous to be a worker in Australia than in China.
Capitalist Rule in Australia Endangers Workers Lives
The rate of workplace deaths in both Australia and China are too high. No worker should ever be killed in a workplace accident! Nevertheless, the fact that the death rate for workers in China is now lower than that in Australia is remarkable for several reasons. For one, per person Australia is by several times still a richer country than China which has much fewer resources per person than Australia and is still pulling itself up from its pre-1949 capitalist days when it was a brutally exploited neo-colony of Western and Japanese imperial powers. As a much richer country, Australia is thus theoretically able to offer higher technology systems and safety devices to ensure worker safety. Secondly, China has a greater proportion of its workforce employed in more dangerous industries – like heavy industry, construction and mining – than Australia. Thus, the Australian economy is dominated by the service sector with just 32% of its GDP coming from the more dangerous (for workers) primary and secondary industries. By contrast, nearly 50% of China’s GDP comes from her primary and secondary industries.
So why then are workers still more likely to die on the job in Australia than in China? The answer lies in the fact that in Australia the economy is owned and controlled by a class of wealthy capitalists who operate enterprises solely according to what makes them the most profit. As much as they can get away with it, these greedy bosses will compromise safety in order to increase profits – for example, by refusing to purchase safety or protective equipment or by ordering/pressuring workers to skip safe work procedures in order to minimise employee numbers or increase output per employee. Furthermore, in the capitalist system which we live under in Australia, workers are in constant fear of being sacked by bosses and this lets bosses put undue pressure on workers to speed up production. Any worker who has worked in the industrial, transportation/ warehousing or construction sectors knows that it is when one is rushed or tired that accidents are most likely to occur. Meanwhile, capitalist bosses dismiss safety concerns raised by workers knowing that workers’ fear of being sacked by them is often sufficient enough to force workers into hesitating in pursuing their concerns. Thus, for example, when a worker was killed in mid-2013 as part of a series of accidents at Fortescue Metals Group’s Christmas Creek Mine that saw two workers killed and several injured in the space of a few months, Electrical Trade Union leader Les McLaughlan explained how workers on the site had flagged safety concerns to their bosses long before the death but were ignored:
Safety concerns were regularly getting raised and nothing was happening about it … If someone persisted they were seen as being a stirrer, there was this clear perception that if you speak up too many times you get a window seat, by a window seat I mean you get laid off. You get put on the plane and you don’t come back.
In capitalist Australia, the one means that workers have to defend their lives at work is through organising collectively – principally through building trade unions – to demand of their bosses decent safety equipment and work procedures and to put a stop to dangerous demands by the bosses for reckless speed ups in production. It is through union struggle – especially in the form of industrial action or threatened action – that workers here have been able to win certain work practices and mandatory safety regulations that have reduced workplace fatalities from what they would otherwise have been. However, our unions have been under concerted attack for over three decades and this has led to the rate of union membership falling. As a result, even as technological advances and the growing importance of the less dangerous tertiary sector should rapidly drive down the number of workplace fatalities, the number of workplace fatalities in Australia has barely declined in recent years.
The escalation of Australian ruling class attacks on our unions now threatens to make Australian workplaces even more unsafe. Former Liberal prime minister John Howard’s Workchoices industrial relations laws – the bulk of which were retained by the subsequent Rudd/Gillard/Rudd ALP government’s Fair Work Act – restricted union right of entry to workplaces and workers’ right to strike. This weakens the main means that workers have to not only fight for their wages and conditions but to protect workplace safety and hence their very lives. Again aping the former Howard regime, the former Labor government brought in the Fair Work Building and Construction (FWBC) authority to especially attack unions in the construction industry – particularly the CFMEU. Now Turnbull’s right-wing Liberal-National Coalition want to go further and introduce a still more draconian ABCC (Australian Building and Construction Commission) – replicating the full extent of the anti-CFMEU body that the former Howard government had put in place.
The reintroduction of the ABCC (or the retention of the barely less severe FWBC) and the maintenance of the Fair Work Act will cause more deaths of workers in the construction industry. Already the construction industry is a very dangerous one. In the first three weeks of last month alone, five workers were killed on Australian construction sites. In one heartbreaking incident, 34 year-old father of two, Ashley Morris, and his 55 year-old workmate were crushed to death when two 9-tonne concrete slabs fell down in a pit they were standing in. The fatal accident occurred at a Brisbane construction site run by the Australian-owned company, Criscon.
It is not only governments that stand in the way of union organising – and, thus, workplace safety – in Australia. The police and courts have been up to their necks in the persecution of dozens upon dozens of union officials and union activists – especially from the CFMEU – for the “crime” of defending workers’ rights. Yet how many greedy capitalist bosses have been prosecuted for their culpability in the deaths of workers in workplace accidents? In capitalist Australia bosses are able to commit industrial manslaughter with immunity but standing on a picket line can get you a huge fine or even the threat of jail time.
Alongside the whole state machine being built up and replenished for serving the interests of the big business owners, in Australia the media also mobilise against workers’ rights. Thus, the media seek to demonise trade unions and never miss an opportunity to sensationalise any negative story about our unions. Right now in concert with the entire ruling class they are especially targeting the CFMEU. Yet, how many times have they ran a story attacking a boss responsible for the death of workers in a workplace accident? Are these callous, selfish bosses ever denounced in the media as they should be?
Consider this too: official statistics from Safe Work Australia for the last five years that figures are available for show that 1070 people were killed in Australian workplaces in that period. And how many people in the last five years have been killed in terrorist attacks in Australia? Well, by the ruling class establishment’s definition of terrorism (they don’t consider Aboriginal people killed in custody by racist cops and screws nor the murdering firebombing of an Indian-origin bus driver by a racist redneck as terrorist attacks), four people have died in terrorist attacks in Australia in the last five years. In other words, nearly 270 times more people have been killed in workplace accidents in this country in a five year period than in terrorist attacks. However, does that mean that the mainstream
media and government give 270 times more coverage and emphasis to the greed-caused carnage we are seeing in our workplaces than they do to the issue of terrorism? No way! Indeed we all know it is the other way around. The mainstream media and government go on endlessly about terrorism but bury the extent of the industrial terror that capitalist bosses are inflicting on their workers through cruelly neglecting workplace safety and dangerously forcing workers into accident causing speed ups and corner cutting. They do, however, emphasise news about workplace accidents overseas – especially those in China – in order to try and make us workers here feel like we are “lucky.” However, the Australian mainstream media and government relegate coverage of fatal workplace accidents here at home to small snippets of news. Why do they do this? Because in the current social order here, the media – like the government and the entire state machine – ultimately serve the capitalist business owners. In the case of the mainstream media this is because the major outlets are either owned by the bosses’ state – like the ABC and SBS –or are more often directly owned by billionaire tycoons like Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, Gina Rinehart, Bruce Gordon and Kerry Stokes. The main media outlets naturally serve the interests of the class – the capitalist class – which their owners are members of. That means covering up the mass industrial manslaughter that their fellow capitalists are responsible for. In the meantime they seek to whip up irrational fears and misinformation about terrorism because by portraying Muslims, people from the Middle East and South Asians as the enemy, the capitalist media hope that they can direct the economic insecurity and frustrations of the masses onto a false target, thus diverting the masses from rightly directing their fire at their actual enemy: the greedy capitalist exploiting class.
The one occupation where work-related deaths in Australia meet with great concern and attention from the mainstream media and governments is those where cops die. This is because police in Australia, while playing a role in sometimes stopping genuine crimes, have a primary political function of enforcing the rule of exploitation of the capitalist class over the working class. They are the guard dogs for the wealth and tyranny of the corporate big wigs and are showered with sympathy and praise by the capitalist establishment. Yet, in the five year period from 2010 to 2014, just 8 cops in Australia have suffered work-related deaths. By contrast, 165 construction workers have been killed in work accidents in the same period. Yet, the deaths of construction workers get scant attention and little even pretence of sympathy from the capitalist rulers and their media.
Socialistic Ownership of the Economy Saves Workers’ Lives
The Peoples Republic of China has been able to resolutely improve workplace safety for the very reverse of the reason why workers continue to be killed at the same high rate in Australia. In the PRC, the commanding heights of the economy are publicly owned– that is, effectively collectively owned by all the people. The PRC’s socialistic system means that the state sector exists not to supplement the profit-obsessed private sector and help private sector bosses get richer but actually plays the dominant role in the economy. Unlike the rich shareholder-owned corporations that dominate Australia’s economy, China’s state-owned enterprises operate not merely to maximise profits but to attain broader social goals – these include maximising employment, developing poorer parts of the country, providing goods and services of vital importance to the community, furthering long-term national economic plans, improving employment of the disabled and boosting workforce technical skills. China’s state-owned enterprises will often maintain their workforce at a higher level than it is most profitable to and even in hard times will delay retrenchments – in some cases even putting workers for months on fully paid training programs when work dries up. It also means that these public sector enterprises are often over-staffed by Australian standards, which means that workers are not driven into dangerously trying to speed up their work. The work environment in these state-owned enterprises tends to be relaxed and workers – knowing that their jobs are pretty secure – are not pressured into cutting corners on safety or recklessly speeding up production.
There are conflicting pressures on these PRC state owned enterprises and they do hire profit-driven managers and CEOs. However, these personnel are assessed – unlike in Western capitalist corporations – in part according to how well they have met overall social and national economic goals including improving workplace safety. It would be unthinkable in a PRC state-owned enterprise for a top manager to get a big bonus if there had been a workplace accident causing loss of life – not like how Ardent Leisure CEO Deborah Thomas got a close to one million dollar bonus soon after four people were killed in the Dreamworld amusement park that the corporation owns! Furthermore, ultimate power in China’s publicly-owned enterprises – sitting above the CEO and board of directors in the organisation chart – are party committees of the ruling Communist Party of China. These committees ensure that the public sector enterprises are ultimately subordinated to overall social goals. If you want to get a small sense of what that means consider your workplace here in Australia and imagine what it would be like, hypothetically, if ultimate and real power rests not with your boss but with a committee of militant, left-wing union representatives who, together with others, also form the government.
Alongside the public sector enterprises that dominate China’s economy are numerous, usually smaller scale, privately owned enterprises. Here in lies a problem. Workplace safety is much, much worse in this capitalist, private sector than it is in China’s state sector. In the past some of these privately owned operations – especially those owned by Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Western capitalists – have also been notorious for sweatshop style exploitation (although even in this aspect this is starting to become old news as far as China is concerned). Fortunately, as well as thoroughly dominating key service sectors (like banking, insurance, media, telecommunications, tourism, culture, education, health, airlines, railways and shipping) the PRC’s state owned enterprises control those economic sectors where the most dangerous occupations occur including sectors like heavy industry, major construction, ports and mining. China’s private sector, by contrast, dominates the less dangerous work areas like retail, restaurants, internet/e- commerce and light industry.
Yet, even in the strategic economic sectors that are dominated by China’s public sector there are some privately owned businesses. Take, for instance, the coal mining sector – the sector in China which had the worst, most notorious, safety record. This is a huge sector since China produces nearly half of the world’s coal. Since its 1949 anti-capitalist revolution, China’s coal sector has always been led by state-owned enterprises and especially the biggest of these state firms – like Shenhua – have a pretty good safety record, particularly for a country whose per capita GDP is still modest. However, alongside these big publicly owned enterprises were many profit-driven, capitalist-owned mines. The latter produced only a minority of China’s coal output but are responsible for most of the deaths of Chinese workers from mining accidents.
However, the carnage of mineworkers in Chinese privately-owned coal mines started to be turned around at the start of the 21st century. The Chinese government began aggressively closing down unsafe, smaller privately owned coal mines while increasing output in state-owned mines to compensate. A few years later came a more significant development. The PRC state began forcibly nationalising many of the capitalist owned mines that were not closed down and placing them into the hands of the publicly-owned enterprises. As The Sydney Morning Herald China correspondent, John Garnaut, put it in a 2 November 2009 article reporting on developments in China’s biggest coal producing region, Shanxi:
Shanxi’s Governor, Wang Jun, is in the process of smashing the private mining industry and feeding the carcasses to big state-owned companies.
The Governor has couched his mass nationalisation of small-scale private mines as a safety campaign. Safety is part of his motivation, no doubt, given that Wang Jun’s two predecessors lost their jobs after massive coal mining accidents.
The results of these nationalisations and the closure of smaller capitalist mines have been dramatic. Last year, the number of workers killed in coal mine accidents in China was nearly 12 times less than the year where deaths peaked in 2002. The death rate per million tonnes of coal produced is now 36 times lower in China than it was 15 years ago. The rate of worker deaths per tonne of coal output is still much higher in China than in Australia because the number of workers required per tonne of coal output in Australia is far, far less than in China – whose coal industry employed over ten million workers according to last year’s figures. This is because the Australian coal industry is much more mechanised and because Australian coal reserves allow for less labour intensive open-cut mines whereas much of China’s coal reserves require more labour intensive, underground mines.
The above figure of the number of workers killed in work accidents per million tonnes of coal produced is the safety statistic of most interest to capitalist coal barons because it gives these callous bosses – for whom a dead worker is just a “cost of production” – an indication of how much compensation they may have to pay to killed workers’ families per amount of the huge mining profits they reap out. However, the statistic of more interest to workers is the numbers of workers killed per hundred thousand workers employed in the sector. This tells workers how likely they are to be killed in a work accident. And in this measure there were 5.8 workers killed in work accidents last year in China’s coal sector for every hundred thousand workers employed in the industry (596 workers killed out of a gigantic coal industry workforce of 10.3 million people) while there was in 2014 (the last year that official Australian government statistics were available at the time this article was written), 8.2 workers killed in Australia for every hundred thousand workers in the coal industry here. In other words, an Australian worker employed in the coal industry here is now 40% more likely to be killed at work than a worker in China in her coal sector.
This comparison is startling. It is startling not only because China’s coal industry had once been so notorious for fatal mine accidents but also because the higher level of technology in Australian mines should make workers’ lives much safer here. Furthermore, Australia’s mainly open cut mining industry should be much safer than China’s deep underground mines. One reason that it is not is because trade union presence in Australia’s mining industry has been greatly weakened from what it once was. Many major mines in Australia were once closed shops – union strength was such that every worker had to be in the union to be allowed to work at a site. However, from the time of the Keating Labor government in the early 1990s onwards, mining bosses – assisted by government laws
that restricted solidarity strike action – made a concerted effort to weaken union presence in the mining industry. As a result, even though there have been technological advances in safety equipment that should make mining work very safe in Australia, mining industry workers in Australia continue to die in work accidents at a high rate as greedy mining corporations not constrained by unions cut corners on workplace safety. These problems are further compounded by the fact that in order to undermine union organising, big Australian mining companies (just like big Australian construction companies) have split their workforce into several companies by contracting out key tasks like maintenance and construction. When accidents occur harming workers directly employed by a contractor, the main mining corporation tries to wash its hands of the incident and minimise responsibility.
In contrast, in the PRC’s socially-owned mines, workplace safety is just as much if not a greater priority than profits – and a leader of a Chinese state-owned company is more likely to suffer a setback to their career from workplace fatalities than from low profits. Unfortunately, although the presence of privately owned coal mines has been significantly diminished in China over the last ten years, many such capitalist-owned mines still exist which is why large numbers of deaths still occur in the Chinese mining industry – albeit at a now proportionately lower rate than in Australian mines. Late last month, for example, 33 mine workers were killed following an explosion at the privately owned Jinshangou Coal Mine in south-west China’s Chongqing Municipality. The total deaths in China’s privately owned mines, however, continues to fall as the PRC government closes more of them down. That is why the number of fatalities in China’s coal mining industry last year fell by around 35% from the year before.
A Question of State Power
The mass nationalisations of capitalist-owned coal mines that have helped to so dramatically reduce workplace fatalities in China’s coal mines are notable because they go against the trend towards privatisation in almost all of the rest of the world. During the time that the PRC was earnestly nationalising private sector mines, Australian governments were busy privatising Telstra, the wharves, electricity generation and supply and many other public sector assets. So how much did it cost the PRC state for its public sector enterprises to buy up privately owned mines? And how much compensation did the PRC state have to pay to private mine bosses in those cases when they simply ordered the latter to shut their operations. The answer to both questions is: not much! Putting the safety of mine workers ahead of any concerns for the capitalist coal bosses’ “rights” to the property that was built up through the exploitation of mine workers, the PRC government simply ordered many smaller private mines to shut without giving any compensation whatsoever. As one irate capitalist, former coal boss in China put it (The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 October 2009):
It’s like I buy this cup. It’s my cup, but now I’m told I’m not allowed to use it.
Meanwhile, the nationalisations of private coal mines involved the coal bosses being forced to sell their mines to state-owned enterprises. The price they were offered was usually at or even below the original price they had purchased the mine for which was often ten or more times less than the market price at the time they were forced to sell. Thus, the nationalisation was in good part a confiscation rather than a purchase. This was great for Chinese working class people. It meant that profitable firms – where the wealth created by mine workers’ toil had previously been going exclusively to greedy capitalist bosses – were brought into the collective hands of the people without increasing public debt while, at the same time, improved workplace safety and working conditions in the mines could now be properly implemented. Of course, the dispossessed capitalists complained bitterly. A local government official sympathetic to them winged to The Sydney Morning Herald reporters (3 October 2009):
“State-owned enterprises are raping private enterprise.”
“The Government is ignoring the law and violating human rights ….”
However, no matter how much of a sook the coal barons chucked they could not stop the nationalisations/confiscations. This is because the PRC state is quite unlike the state in a capitalist country – whether a rich one like the U.S.A, Australia or Greece or a poorer one like India, Bangladesh, Haiti or Indonesia. In such capitalist countries, the state exists to enforce the “right” of capitalist business owners to make profits from the toil of workers and to protect the capital built up from such profits. However, in the PRC, while private enterprise does take place, the state does not in practice guarantee the “human right” of private business owners to exploit workers and does not guarantee their “right” to the property built up from such exploitation! The PRC state was founded in a gigantic anti-capitalist revolution in 1949 when tens of millions of exploited tenant farmers, workers and the poor rose up to take power from the landlords and capitalists. The power that the victorious toiling masses exercise in China is, to be sure, deformed by corruption, bureaucratic privilege and the fact that administrative decision making has been kept in the hands of a narrow layer of bureaucrats. Since the pro-market reforms of the 1980s and 1990s that created a new layer of capitalists, the PRC state has also been distorted by pressure from these capitalists. Nevertheless, despite these problems, the PRC state exists in the main not to protect the profits of private sector bigwigs as the state here does but to protect the dominance of the socialistic public sector. Just ask the capitalist former coal bosses who have had their mines forcibly nationalised/confiscated! In a deformed way to be sure, the PRC state acts to defend the interests of working class people. It is a workers state – the key factor that has enabled China to make such improvements in workplace safety over the last 15 years or so.
One simple way in which the class character of the PRC has driven the rapid improvement in workplace safety in China is in the things the government places emphasis on. At the same time that Australian governments rant against “militant unions” and “union thuggery,” the PRC government has been focusing their attacks on bosses who neglect safety and on lax government officials who fail to properly enforce safety regulations. The PRC state holds business owners and bosses criminally responsible for fatal work accidents in their firms. This is quite different to Australia where greedy corporate thugs who have presided over fatal workplace accidents can continue to rule the roost as if they have done nothing wrong. Take one of Australia’s richest people, mining magnate Andrew Forrest. His Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) has a very poor safety record. In just a six-month period three years ago, two workers were killed in separate maintenance accidents at just one of its mines – the Christmas Creek mine in the Pilbara – and several workers suffered major injuries. FMG was so negligent in its procedures that even WA’s official mines regulator, the Department of Mines and Petroleum, gave it a reprimand. Yet, three years later, Forrest was being awarded the West Australian, Australian of the Year Award! It seems that in this country, a corporate bigwig’s greed-derived negligence that causes the deaths of workers is no obstacle to them being considered a “model citizen.” In contrast, the standard practice in China is that if there is a fatal workplace accident, the business owner (if it is a private firm involved which is often the case in China’s workplace accidents) and key executives are taken into police custody until an investigation into the cause of death is concluded. Bosses who are found to be negligent in such cases can expect to spend years in jail. Just last month, the capitalist owner of a shoe factory in East China’s Zhejiang Province was sentenced to five years jail over the collapse of a workshop building last year that killed several workers. His sentence was actually considered lean by PRC standards for bosses whose negligence causes fatal accidents because he paid out a large amount of compensation to victims and their families.
As a result of the PRC state engaging in such “systematic violations of the human rights” (as the Western mainstream media would put it when talking about China) of greedy private sector bosses, there have been marked improvements in workplace safety even in China’s private sector. Another factor driving these improvements has been the ruling Communist Party of China’s (CPC) campaign to build party committees in private enterprises – which had previously been a weak area for the party. Although, unlike in state-owned enterprises, these CPC committees are not the ultimate power in private businesses, they act as the eyes and ears of the PRC state within private enterprises. Often the mere presence of a strong committee of the ruling party, especially given the fragile legal environment that capitalist businesses operate in within the socialistic PRC, can be enough to constrain a capitalist to abide by state safety and industrial relations laws.
Meanwhile, in the mid-2000s, the PRC planned the introduction of an overtly pro- worker labour law. This was at a time when here in Australia, the former Howard Liberal government was busy introducing their union-busting Workchoices law and the subsequent Labor government was pushing through its also anti-worker Fair Work Act – aptly dubbed by many union militants as “Workchoices Lite.” The new Chinese labour law went into force in 2008 – despite strident opposition from Western multinational corporations and the American Chamber of Commerce in China. It gives trade unions semi-veto power over any change to workplace rules and working conditions. Importantly, Point 2 of Article 42 of the law states that a worker whose work capacity has been partially (or fully) reduced as a result of an injury or occupational disease contracted at the enterprise can never be retrenched by the firm even for incompetence and even if the firm is experiencing business decline. This provision not only protects injured workers but act as a deterrent against bosses neglecting workplace safety.
The provisions of China’s 2008 labour law also encourages the building of trade unions. This was part of a drive openly promoted by then Chinese president, Hu Jintao, to increase the rate of union membership amongst Chinese workers. Today, some 80% of Chinese wage workers are union members. To be sure, China’s trade union federation, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) in many cases does not organise confrontations with the bosses in the fight for workers’ rights. This comes from the ACFTU’s history when it was built up at a time when socialistic state-owned enterprises not only dominated China’s key sectors and played the backbone role in her economy – as they still do now – but comprised almost the entire economy. In that period, while the ACFTU needed to protect against individual abuses of workers in particular enterprises, it also needed to balance workers claims in one sector against the overall interests of the people-owned economy. Today, however, as well as having socialistic public-sector enterprises that dominate the commanding heights of China’s economy, there are private-sector enterprises where bosses exploit workers’ labour for profit. In this latter sector, the ACFTU needs to move to a class struggle approach (while still ensuring that such struggle does not do harm to the overall workers state). However, while the ACFTU still does not often call strikes against these private sector bosses (it sometimes does), it is nevertheless often able to pressure these bosses into making concessions. It does so by making demands of the bosses who know that behind the ACFTU stands the PRC state – a state that in practice does not guarantee the “right” to capitalist exploitation. When a private sector boss considers rejecting an ACFTU demand on behalf of workers they know that they are risking their business being undermined or even shut down by government regulations or decrees. That is why the rapid growth in union membership in China has improved working conditions there and has contributed to the improvement in workplace safety in even the profit-driven private sector. Real wages in China have grown by an average of more than 10% per year over a nearly ten year period.
Workers’ rights and workplace safety conditions in China have also been defended through workers taking industrial action – usually in the form of wildcat strikes and factory occupations. Contrary to the impression promoted by Western mainstream media, strikes in China are actually more frequent than they are in Australia. The number of these strikes has been quickly increasing – especially since 2014. Most of the workers’ actions have been against private enterprise bosses over issues such as wage levels and poor workplace safety. Such strikes often quickly take on a militant character with workers occupying workplaces, blocking roads and sometimes taking bosses hostage. There is a genuine sense of entitlement amongst workers in China – a sense that in Red China, productive property and indeed the law belongs to them. Unlike the capitalist-owned media often tries to imply, strikes are not illegal in China although they occur in a legal grey area where they are neither illegal nor officially legal. It is true that a few strikes in China have been met with government repression – especially from local governments who are more susceptible to influence from a powerful business (although sometimes higher up governments – especially the central government – then respond by coming down like a ton of bricks on the relevant local government for not supporting the workers). Yet many strikes and plant occupations in China end up receiving tacit and sometimes even open support from the PRC government – and PRC police and courts – who often pressure bosses into make concessions to workers. Such was the case, for example, during a militant workers’ struggle in the capital, Beijing, in June 2013. When workers at a medical devices manufacturer heard that their capitalist boss planned to retrench them, they took the greedy boss hostage for days and gave the boss his own back as they shone lights and banged on his window to deprive the captured exploiter of sleep. When trade union and Chinese government officials intervened to negotiate with the business boss, they too joined with workers in pressuring the capitalist to accede to workers’ demands which he was eventually forced to do.
Adding to the support for struggles for workers’ rights – which inevitably includes workplace safety – in China and to the drive for improved safety at work there is the role played by China’s media which is almost entirely state-owned. The PRC media often report sympathetically on workers’ industrial action and devote a great deal of attention to issues of workplace safety and the reporting of workplace accidents. Indeed, it is worth noting that while the people most vilified by the Australian mainstream media are militant trade unionists, Aboriginal people, Muslims, low income single mothers, the unemployed, oppressed coloured “ethnic” groups prejudicially branded as having a greater propensity to be criminals and public housing tenants – in other words, those at the bottom of this sharply class-divided society – in China the groups most disparaged by the mainstream media are bribe-taking government officials, corrupt business tycoons, bosses whose neglect has caused major workplace accidents and pro-capitalist “dissidents” linked to “NGOs” funded by Western billionaire-serving regimes.
Workers’ Lives Depend on the Fate of the Class Struggle
The trend is for the number of deaths in China’s workplaces to continue to fall rapidly. In the five years up to the end of 2015, the rate of deaths in China’s workplaces has fully halved. However, there are also serious dangers that can reverse this trend. Although they do not hold state power, a capitalist class definitely exists within China. These capitalists are not satisfied with being able to acquire big wealth from operations in certain areas. They want to also dominate the commanding heights of the economy like they are allowed to do in “normal,” i.e. capitalist countries. They want to be protected by a state that unreservedly defends their “right” to make profits from exploiting workers just like a “normal,” i.e. capitalist state. And backing their quest are many upper middle class professionals who admire these capitalists and aspire to be like them. Currently, China’s capitalists and the “civil society” elements backing them do not feel powerful enough, for the most part, to openly call for capitalist counterrevolution. Instead, they push for a strengthening of the capitalist private sector of China’s economy at the expense of her socialistic state sector. If that were to happen it would threaten the gains made in workplace safety in China and lead to an all-round increase in the income gap between rich and poor. It would also, by increasing the relative weight and absolute wealth of the capitalist class, increase the power of capitalist restorationist forces. And make no mistake about it: capitalist counterrevolution is what China’s capitalists and their yuppy allies ultimately want. They have powerful forces backing their drive internationally: the ethnic Chinese capitalist class that dominates Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, anti-communist Chinese exile organisations that exist in places like the U.S. and Australia and, most of all, the imperialist ruling classes that currently lord over the U.S.A, Britain, Australia and, indeed, nearly all the most powerful countries in the world (other than China). While capitalists within China and their allies seek to white ant the PRC’s system from within, the world’s capitalist powers are trying to squeeze the socialistic PRC state from the outside so hard that it will begin to disintegrate.
If capitalist rule was to berestored in Chinaitwould notonlylead to massive sweatshop exploitation of workers throughout China but would lead to a major rollback to the improvements made in workplace safety and a drastic reversal of China’s stunning achievements in poverty reduction. The effects would be felt worldwide including in Australia. With working conditions in a country with one in five of the world’s people being slashed, the capitalists around the world would be able to drive down wages and undercut safety regulations in their own countries in a race to the bottom. And that’s not to mention the political effect of capitalists worldwide being emboldened by triumphant capitalist counterrevolution in the world’s most populous country. This is why it is in the very interests of the workers’ movement in Australia and the whole world to stand in defence of the Chinese workers state against capitalist counterrevolutionary forces.
Of course, it is not just in China where the fate of the class struggle will determine the level of workplace safety and thus the preservation of workers’ very lives. The more the capitalist class in this country wins the class war by weakening unions, pushing through anti-union and anti-strike laws, casualising the workforce and restricting union access to workplaces, the more the bosses will be able to get away with instituting dangerous work practices, ignoring workers’ safety concerns and enforcing reckless speed ups. We need militant industrial action to stop the reintroduction of the draconian ABCC laws. There also needs to be a struggle to smash the existing anti-union, Fair Work Building and Construction (FWBC) authority brought in by the former ALP government. Under the FWBC and Labor’s Fair Work Act, over a hundred officials of the CFMEU have been brought before the courts for standing up for their members’ rights. Let’s fight for unrestricted union access to workplaces and let’s smash all anti-strike and anti-union laws. Even to wage the struggle necessary to defeat these laws will require unleashing industrial actions in defiance of these self-same laws since the laws themselves criminalise the kind of powerful actions – like industry-wide strikes and secondary strikes – that are needed to consign these Dickensian laws to the dustbin of history.
To win the looming battles, the working class needs above all else unity. That means defeating the attempts by the ruling class to divide and divert our ranks with racism. Working class people must mobilise to undercut these attempts to divide us by positively mobilising to stand as one with embattled Aboriginal, Muslim and other coloured “ethnic” communities. We need to understand too that the unity we need to defeat the powerful Australian bosses and the state that serves them means unity with all workers – including 457 Visa workers and workers overseas. Let’s not get into divisive arguments about which worker should get which job first. The bosses watching will just be laughing at us and rubbing their hands with glee that we local workers are blaming our fellow workers overseas and not fighting against greedy capitalists wherever they and their operations are based. Let’s instead stand as one against the capitalist exploiting class to demand the greatest pay and the best conditions for all workers everywhere, jobs for all and the best possible workplace safety practices. Let’s also fight our battles ensuring that every struggle of today advances towards a final goal of the working class seizure of state power.
In the PRC, workers’ grip on power is tenuous and, indeed, somewhat twisted. Nevertheless, the fact that workers in China, a country that before 1949 was mired in such poverty and colonial oppression, now has safer workplaces than in Australia shows how much can be achieved in a state where workers do hold the power and socialistic public ownership plays the dominant role.