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Unions in China still feeble, but gaining foothold

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Chinese enterprise-level unions, which have traditionally taken their cue from the government-controlled ACFTU, are among the most pliable in the world.

The union drive comes in the wake of pro-labor legislation on contracts and arbitration that the Chinese parliament has passed this year to strengthen employee rights, after decades of laissez faire investor-friendly policies.

The high-profile campaign to set up unions in more than 10,000 workplaces and cover 80 percent of the biggest foreign companies operating in China is "on track" to meet its targets, says Ms. Wang.

Wang is keen to dispel foreign misunderstandings about unions in China and regrets that it has been hard to organize in foreign-owned companies "because they equate their unions at home with unions here and they are very scared of them.

"Our purpose is to guarantee a win-win situation for companies and workers," Wang adds. "We coordinate labor relations, we don't fight against management."

Still there is much apprehension, says Chris Liu, a labor expert here with the US law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Many businesses think that if "management can make decisions unilaterally, that is better than having someone slow them down."

But almost all the Fortune 500 companies that have come under ACFTU pressure during the campaign have acceded because "they don't really have a choice," says Mr. Leininger.

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