After successfully suing Walmart, China woman now guns for state labour union

After successfully suing Walmart, China woman now guns for state labour union

SHENZHEN, China - When Wang Yafang was fired from her job at a Walmart in southern China in July 2011 for dishonesty, she refused to sign the termination papers and even showed up at work the next day - only to be sent away.

Wang, 38, then sued Walmart Shen Guo Tou Stores Inc, a Wal-Mart Stores Inc subsidiary, for wrongful termination, and beat the world's largest retailer in arbitration and twice in court, winning 48,636 yuan (S$9,850) in damages.

Now, she's aiming at an even bigger target: The state-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).

In the three decades since China began reforming its economy, its giant state labour union - with upwards of 280 million members - has sat on the sidelines, rarely intervening on behalf of workers in disputes.

In a bid to help change that, Wang, backed by lawyers who have handled some of China's highest-profile labour cases, decided to sue the union branch at the Walmart in Shenzhen where she worked for nine years. Unlike the few previous attempts by workers to sue grassroots union branches, courts have heard Wang's case.

Wang and her team argue that the union endorsed the assessment of her as "dishonest" when she was fired and in doing so damaged her reputation. She wants an apology. The union branch has denied the charges.

Beneath the surface, Wang and her lawyers are levelling a more serious accusation - one echoed by many Chinese workers - that the ACFTU is failing in its role as the protector of worker rights and interests.

The landmark case highlights shifting labour relations in China, where workers increasingly know their rights and are seizing opportunities to challenge the status quo, often in court. Independent unions are banned in China, and the ACFTU is coming under unprecedented pressure to adapt.

Two courts in Shenzhen have already heard Wang's case since she filed the suit last July, and have ruled against her. This month or next, her lawyers plan to launch a final appeal with the Guangdong superior people's court.

"Either way, if she wins or loses, it is already extremely meaningful that this case has been brought to trial," said Shi Zhigang, a former union boss from Nanjing who now acts as a collective bargaining adviser to local union branches. "It's an amazing development that the courts have even accepted the case and are using Chinese law to make an assessment and evaluation of the union."

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