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A group of German Union activists (about 15 persons) finished a two weeks visit in China (14-28 October 2006). They had participated in two workshops: "Experiences of 'social partnership' in industrial relations in German and Chinese factories in a capitalist mode of production" in Beijing and "Helping workers of factories - what can NGOs do from outside?" in Hong Kong (originally designed in Shenzhen, but later moved to Hong Kong).
The notion of "social partnership" in the German context was put in parallel with the concept of "harmonious society" in the China context. The participants from German trade unions are mostly from the left and hold critical viewpoints towards neo-liberal globalization.
Recently I have read a few articles from a best-seller in Germany World War for Wealth: The Global Grab for Power and Prosperity by Gabor Steingart and got the impression that there is a popular sentiment in Germany against eastern countries, in particular China which calls for protectionism. As Gabor Steingart also proclaims the Death of the Unions, I would like to know how the German unionists address the issue and how they make sense of the China trip with their movement background.
As the two main organizers, Wolfgang Schaumberg and Peter Franke, are still in Hong Kong, I seized the opportunity for this interview.
Peter is a social scientist, researcher at Asiahouse in Essen, I have known him personally for a few years. Wolfgang is a retired magazine worker at automobile company Opel/GM in Bochum, member of metal workers union IGM and company's works council from 1970 – 2000.
Oiwan: What is the purpose of this trip to China?
Peter: The main purpose is to let grassroots labour activists to have an opportunity to understand the labour situation in China, to meet up with the grassroots and possibly trade union activists who work on labour issue in China.
Oiwan: Some critics said that European trade unions are dead why is this kind of exchange important for trade union movement in Germany?
Wolfgang: In Germany, multinationals such as Siemen and Volks has come to china years ago. Trade unions have been blackmailed by companies' management that the production cost in Germany is too high and if the unions refuse to give concession, the companies will move to China. The leadership of trade unions are mostly social democratic, and they provide no answer to the blackmailing. We want to work with china grassroots to defend our interest. If we don't have international and worldwide perspective we can not address the issue, such as the blackmailing of the companies' management. We cannot address the issue by just looking at our work, our interest and our country. We need other way out.
Peter: We need to know more about the others, connecting and working with grassroots in different countries. We have to develop our strategy beyond nationalistic approach. Hopefully this trip is just a start, and exchanges among grassroots activists and NGOs can carry on. At present there are too much prejudice towards each others both sides, between Asia and European trade unions.
Wolfgang: A very simple example, we came to a country with more than 1.3b people, this is already unbelievable for us. On the other side, Chinese people find it unbelievable that European countries have already gone through 150 years of capitalism and trade union movement experience.
Oiwan: Can you explain more about the significant of such exchange for the trade Union movement in Germany?
Wolfgang: With our experience here, we can inform our colleague the situation in china. We are aware that there are also mass demonstrations happening in china. People begin to fight for their interest. We need to identify these people who are willing to defend their live. When the company management blackmails us again back home. We can say that we know about the situation in China and workers from both countries will inform each other to make ourselves stronger.
We also heard that the Shanghai factories of Volkswagen (Germany Car Company) has experienced a drop in car export since 2000, the workers there suffer from shorter working time and low wages. The Chinese workers have first experienced the recession. Someday they will experience our problem.
Oiwan: what message will you bring back to Germany after this trip?
Peter: The principle message is to demystify China and Asia. Many people in Europe have false impression on China and Asia, tend to eroticize the region. Certain sectors hold some chauvinist capitalist ideas and put Asia as a threat. For example, articles in certain magazines view china as main attacker of European economy. Of course there are evidences and facts to argue for that. However, their perspectives are problematic because they divide the world into two blocs along the line of race and region, i.e Asia, Japan, India, China on one side, and U.S and Europe on the other side. In the past, similar sentiment existed, however, now such sentiments spell out in a very explicit way. We need to counter that, especially for unionists because workers are feeling very insecure about the present situation, and the sense of insecurity can be very easily manipulated. This is a small groups. But all these people can multiply themselves back in their unions. Of course, we can't tell them what messages to convey, it really depends on the individual.
Wolfgang: I have two ideas in my head. For example, we visited Honda car factory in Guangzhou. It is a very modern car factory. It has the best facilities for workers leisure, with large room for sports, well equipped and expensive. In Germany, we can't imagine that. The guide told us that this factory is the model for future factories in China. On the other hand, we also see that young workers there, just 23 years old, they only have temporary contract for a limited time. In Germany, we are accustomed to enter a company and die there (permanent contract). Of course, now our good time is over. However, we can still see that capitalism in china is different from the European experience. When these young people grow old what will they do? Contract will end and stop. This kind of capitalism is very brutal.
We also visited a small village for three days. We have some experience to see how the large majority of people live and learn about some of their problems. In the village 20-30% of the families depend on migrant workers' income for survival. They work in factories and multinational firm. We went to visit rural migrant worker in Beijing and see how they arrange their lives in the city. Their children have no "Hukou" (city household registration record) rights in Beijing. They can't attend local schools and have to build up school for their own children. They have to organize their lives by themselves. We visited one of the schools, I saw this 7 years old kid and he was saying "hello" in English to us. In Germany, kids learn English in the age of 9 or 10. It is amazing to see that the rural migrant workers’ kids are learning English so young. I believe that the next generations will better than us to communicate and discuss the problem together. We have to discuss our problems together, not just to complain about the capitalism. Actually, the other side of global capitalism has given us the opportunity to have common experience and also common language "English" (although forced upon us) to communicate.
Oiwan: What is your greatest impression in this trip?
Peter: I have been to Beijing many times. There were no specific event that gave me particularly strong impression in this trip. However, I notice that things are changing very fast, small changes that people don't realize. Although situation in China is much worst that in Europe, people are more optimistic. In Europe, we sometimes are more sarcastic because many things don't work out. Maybe the optimism here is illusion, but there is hope.
Wolfgang: The official opinion in China is that, although the gap of rich and poor is wider and wider, they believe it is unavoidable in this phrase of industrialization; eventually poor people will become richer. I don't believe it. I wonder if the mass really believe it or not.
Oiwan: Can you tell us more about the worker movement in Germany? Recently there is a huge demonstration against the welfare cut in Germany.
Wolfgang: In Europe, we experienced rapid growth, after the 70s, we have unemployment, and there is no going back. Now my colleagues only have fear, fear without future. Young people are writing in front of their t-shirt "without future", from the first time, young people feel that there is no future.
The recent huge demonstration in Germany was not initiated by the union leaders, but the pressure from the workers that the unions have to do something. The social democratic party is too close to the government. They don't like protest. Our leaders tell us, the world's situation is difficult. If Germany has to maintain its role as the world's leading export country, we have to give concession. So we haven't been fighting back blackmailing from the companies management. We have more than 80% organized workers, but unions no longer organize struggle.
Oiwan: From the experience of Germany, do you have any message to pass on to the Chinese?
Wolfgang: To warn them from harmony with capitalism. Social partnership and harmony with capitalist sector is not good. I think the lesson is implicit from the experience in Germany.
Peter: In the sharing with the labour unionists in Beijing, they actually said that they have been studying the German social democratic model in social partnership, hoping that the State, workers and unions can regulate capitalism in China. This group wwould say such kind of partnership is pretty hard.
Photos taken by Genosse_TaBu
[Germany, September 5, 2005: Day of protests against cuts of unemployment benefit. This one took place at Breitscheidplatz, Berlin. It was called the "market of cruelties". A union member of NGG (food producing branch) protest against the rising price of a special sort of ticket, unemployed and poor people can buy to use the public means of transport. ]
This work is licensed under a Attribution Non-commercial Creative Commons license