Wal-Mart Requests Meeting With State-Sponsored Labor Group in China

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Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has asked to meet with China's state-sanctioned labor group after employees formed unions at five stores in a campaign to unionize all of its 60 Chinese outlets, the labor group and a state news agency said Wednesday.

The request for talks with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions was Wal-Mart's first public step in response to the union votes over the past two weeks.

No date has been set for a meeting, said Li Jianming, an ACFTU spokesman. He declined to say what Wal-Mart asked to discuss. Phone calls to spokespeople at Wal-Mart's China headquarters weren't answered.

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The official Xinhua News Agency quoted the vice president of Wal-Mart China, Li Chengjie, as saying it wants to cooperate with the ACFTU "in a more effective and harmonious way."

Also Wednesday, the ACFTU warned Wal-Mart not to retaliate against workers who form unions.

The group, "led by the Communist Party of China and backed by the government, will take measures to protect these workers," Xinhua reported, paraphrasing Guo Wencai, director of the ACFTU's department of grass roots organizing.

The ACFTU is the umbrella group for unions permitted by the communist government. It has lobbied for the creation of Wal-Mart unions and had accused the company of blocking its efforts.

A letter from Wal-Mart to the ACFTU requesting talks asked for them to take place with "no media presence," Xinhua said.

China doesn't allow independent unions, and activists are frequently jailed and harassed. The ACFTU often is regarded not as an advocate for better pay and working conditions for employees but as an intermediary that represents employers to workers.

Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., opened its first store in China in 1996 and has 28,000 Chinese employees. It has few unions elsewhere in its worldwide operations.

Unions in China represent the workforce of individual companies or stores, rather than a whole industry. All unions must be affiliated with the ACFTU.

The five Wal-Mart unions are relatively small, with about 25 to 30 members each. Three of the Wal-Mart unions are in Shenzhen, with others in the eastern city of Nanjing and in Quanzhou in the southeast.

The ACFTU says expanding its presence in private and foreign companies is one of its key goals. The group's leaders say they hope the success at Wal-Mart will boost efforts to form unions at other private companies.

About 26 percent of China's 150,000 foreign-financed companies have official labor unions, according to the ACFTU.

The group had hoped to raise that to 50 percent this year. But an ACFTU leader quoted Wednesday by state television said that after the Wal-Mart votes, it was raising that target to 60 percent.