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What the local trade union did in the wake of the Tianjin disaster

In the ten days since the Tianjin chemical warehouse explosion that has claimed more than one hundred lives, the local trade union has been busy providing the victims with “psychological consultations” and carrying out search and rescue missions. What officials have failed to do however is really ask themselves what kind of role the union should be playing in the aftermath of such a massive workplace disaster?

Since 12 August, the Tianjin Municipal Trade Union and its affiliated Binhai District Union Federation have published 11 articles detailing their post-disaster efforts. In these articles, the word “psychology” appears 53 times and the word “rescue” 43 times. The phrase “safeguard workers’ rights and ensure their safety” appears only twice.

The reports contained 13 photographs, seven of which showed union officials having meetings. In the other photographs, officials made donations, handed out air purifiers and post-disaster self-help handbooks. None of the eleven reports explained exactly what the union’s “search and rescue” missions entailed, who was responsible for what, or what success if any they had achieved.

According to the district union website, it has more than 440,000 members in 10,000 enterprise-level unions. However, the union’s media reports never once mentioned if any union members had been injured or what the enterprise unions were doing to help their members. One report did however mention that “the family possessions of 12 union officials were damaged, and one official was injured.”

The district trade union’s “condolence committee” convenes to discuss injury and property damage among union officials and workers

China’s Trade Union Law states that the first and foremost responsibility of the union is to safeguard workers’ rights. The union should also ensure that employers provide employees with a safe working environment. However, a glance at the union’s website shows that it is failing on both counts. All of the union’s safety-related activities, for example, focused on cultural performances, production competitions, and on “comforting” workers. 

Meanwhile, China National Radio interviewed a stevedore at the Ruihai International Logistics warehouse who said he was neither qualified to do the job, nor had he received any professional training. And the Beijing Youth Daily reported that there are more than 1,800 companies handling dangerous chemicals in the area.

In a telephone interview, a union spokesperson named Xu said she did not know whether those companies were unionised.

“I am not familiar with this issue,” she said. “The Department of Rights at our union is responsible for monitoring workplace safety and health, but everybody has gone out to do psychological consultation work. I don’t know when they will be back, so I suggest you send us an email with all the questions you want to ask.”