China's Communist Party-controlled union is ready to help Wal-Mart Stores Inc set up union branches at its Chinese stores "as soon as possible," the official Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday.
The 123-million-member All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) plans to push ahead with its demand that foreign enterprises such as Wal-Mart set up trade unions, Xinhua said, citing a union official who it said did not want to be named.
The comments followed an announcement by Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart earlier this week that it will allow the federation to set up branches in its stores on the mainland.
Criticized in North America for its strident and often controversial employee relations, it was the first time the 5,000-store chain has published its views on the issue.
"Wal-Mart China has shown a positive change of its long-standing non-union attitude in its statement and the ACFTU is planning to help foreign-funded companies, including Wal-Mart, in the country to establish trade unions as soon as possible," the Xinhua report said.
The Chinese union group had threatened to sue Wal-Mart and other companies based outside China if they fail to set up union branches in their China operations.
Wal-Mart had said it had no unions in China because its employees had not requested them. It defended its labor practices as fully complying with Chinese laws, noting it says unions are to be set up voluntarily by employees.
The unionization drive was the latest attempt by the union -- the sole body permitted to organize workers in China -- to penetrate the most dynamic sector of the economy, shore up its declining membership and boost its lowly political status.
Its union branches are usually toothless management-controlled bodies that work mostly to prevent conflict.
"Wal-Mart no longer holds the international practice of not building up trade unions as an excuse, indicating that its attitude toward the issue has changed positively," an ACFTU official told Xinhua news agency.
The ACFTU said it was planning to conduct questionnaires of employees working in foreign-funded companies within China, including Wal-Mart, to study their working situations and welfare system.
"If the foreign-funded companies still deny their workers' right to join the trade unions, the ACFTU will surely pursue litigation against them."
According to China's trade union law, all employees have the right to join the ACFTU, the country's sole trade union run by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
They are outlawed from forming independent unions or organizing collective bargaining activities outside the ACFTU.
Experts familiar with China's union laws say that the issue is one that periodically surfaces as the ACFTU pushes for better access to multinational corporations in the face of its declining influence.