Unions to build power within China’s belt and road initiative

“Chinese MNCs’ treatment of workers depends on the strength of  trade unionists.”

This was the takeaway point made by trade unionists who attended BWI’s Global Conference on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

Held in Manila, Philippines, the conference aims to pioneer the development of a global strategy to effectively engage the BRI, a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in numerous countries and international organisations. It also wants to safeguard labour rights, exact employer accountability and protect the environment in the context of the emergence of Chinese multinational companies.

Attended by close to 80 trade unionists from Asia Pacific, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America, the conference prepared panel discussions that deliberated the relevance and impact of BRI on trade unions, countries and international financial institutions (IFIs), and the opportunities opened for trade union organising in BRI infrastructure projects. 

FES Philippines Programme Coordinator Shenna Kim Carisma moderated the first panel of speakers comprised of Innovation for Change (East Asia) Programme Director Corinna Lopa, Asian Development Bank (ADB) Senior Social Development Specialist Haidy Seang Ear-Dupuy, NGO Forum on the ADB Energy Policy and Campaigns Strategist Tanya Roberts Davis, and BWI Asia Pacific Regional Representative Apolinar Tolentino. They shared their thoughts and analyses on various BRI projects and how they are increasingly becoming geopolitical tools of the Chinese government at the expense of labour rights. They also shared important victories against abusive Chinese projects and discussed strategies and pathways to exact more accountability from BRI-led MNCs. 

Meanwhile, BWI Asia Pacific Education Secretary Marlon Quesada facilitated the succeeding panel which showcased real trade union experiences from Khamid Istakhori of SERBUK-Indonesia, Eric Kanyi from Africa MENA, Victor Hugo Brandan from Latin America and Ivana Dimitrova of Pan-Europe. They began the tedious process of finding answers to the complex question of what instruments and mechanisms can trade unions use to push BRI-led Chinese MNCs to respect labour rights. One of the takeaways from the panel discussion was to build the strength of trade unions and even their respective governments to stand up against Chinese MNCs. They said that the Chinese MNCs’ treatment of workers depends on the strength of unionists, pointing to the need for innovative organising to build trade union power.  

Regional working groups were set up at the last day of the conference to formulate action plans and gather ideas for a global strategy to address the BRI. BWI Global Coordinator on Infrastructure Linnea Wikström consolidated the output of the working groups and highlighted the convergence points on better trade union communication and cooperation, identification and implementation of best practices and more international framework agreements (IFAs) with Chinese MNCs. 

BWI Asia Pacific Regional Committee Vice Chair RC Khuntia and BWI Chinese MNC Adhoc Working Group Chair Ibrahim Abubakar Walama delivered the closing remarks. 

“We would like to acknowledge the efforts put in by BWI to make this conference a success and for the support extended by Solidarity Support Organisations – FES, Union to Union, SBTF and the FNV in making this strategic event possible,” Walama said. 

“It is time to put in place a comprehensive trade unions’ strategy that can be led by affiliates and implemented across regions to advance workers’ rights in BRI projects. We acknowledge the existing efforts and interventions of trade unions active in the mapping and also organising BRI projects and for their valuable inputs at this global conference to help evolve a global plan of action and joint strategy for implementation,” Khuntia concluded.