An over-entertained labour day: can gala shows and awards safeguard workers’ dignity?

As a tradition, parades take place in different cities on International Labour Day, to represent the solidarity between the working class and to inform the government and public about the problems workers still face. The parades aim to celebrate the contribution of workers, earn them respect and recognition from the public, who are mostly workers too. In Hong Kong, similar parades are also organized. Trade unions and labour organizations in Hong Kong would launch or join May Day parades, to raise their own concerns, such as long working hours, work safety, and salaries. Yet, just a stone's throw away, trade union in Shenzhen has a completely different interpretation of Labour Day.

All China Federation of Trade Unions (hereafter: ACFTU) is the only recognized trade union organization in China. It hosts different activities on Labour Day, to give credit to workers' contribution in building a "socialist society with Chinese characteristics"; to compliment certain "model workers", who are usually highly skilled workers, using their expertise to push for scientific or social advancement, to train others and etc. One of their so-called achievements would be "upholding and promoting the beliefs of the Chinese Communist Party", "implementing national direction and policy", if not all. In other words, their achievements are indeed the achievements of the party and the state. This year, ACFTU worked together with China Central Television to host a gala, broadcasting cultural activities to "promote the value of labour".

It is definitely a positive gesture, when workers' contribution is recognized and praised by the government and state. Yet, is there genuine respect to workers, while numerous workers, migrant workers are struggling to make their ends meet, enjoying little or no employment security? Especially after Xi Jinping's recent announcement on extracting non-capital function and policy to redistribute population of Beijing, authorities in many major cities such as Shenzhen and  Guangzhou started to use excuses such as "clearing up illegal construction, preventing potential safety hazards" to remove migrant workers. Some 10,000 migrant workers have lost their homes and belongings, some are forced to return to their home villages and some struggle for their survival in the cities.

Currently, labour rights in China is widely disregarded. Enterprises often ignore work safety regulations; when workers get injured or suffer from occupational diseases, they seldom pay for medical expenses and legal compensation. A silicosis-infected worker told us in an interview how the enterprise would prevent workers to get diagnosis from the occupational disease hospital; even the workers win the lawsuit, the government would delay the compensation procedure; the compensation often could not cover the medical expenses; workers and their families have to take casual works or borrow money from relatives to live on.

When workers' health and safety are not protected, government and enterprises fail to address their needs when they are seeking help, ACFTU's gala to present "model workers" is simply phoney. In reality, ACFTU turns a blind eye to the exploitation and inequality workers face, it fails to carry out its role as a trade union. Instead of spending a fortune in celebrating May Day, ACFTU should do a better job in improving labour conditions and promoting labour rights. After all, it is what a trade union is for.