AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry workers are becoming ever bolshier. Based on China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the volume of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to more than 1,300. Over the last quarter they rose threefold year-on-year, with factory workers, taxi drivers and teachers across the country demanding better treatment.
The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. But in areas, they have also begun to give state-controlled unions more ability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to find out a need to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations have to be associated with their state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), whose constitution describes the working class as “the leading class of China” but which normally sides with management. Recently, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specifically in privately run factories where they fear not enough unions might encourage independent ones to develop. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations inside the southern province of Guangdong, the place to find a great deal of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and several from the strikes (see map), might begin to change that. They codify the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that is, to negotiate their relation to employment through representatives who speak for all those employees. The guidelines make use of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational in comparison to the usual term. But, in writing no less than, they give the official unions greater ability to initiate negotiations with management as opposed to, as before, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security companies in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, would have welcomed a much more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was released just last year after nine months in jail for taking matters into their own hands and leading a protest sought after of higher wages. “China’s unions do not participate in the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The new rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who happen to be hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies needs to be paid the same as permanent staff (they commonly are paid a lot less). The regulations say there has to be “equal purchase equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is just not to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that could turn versus the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control most of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the brand new rules, fearing they could result in even higher labour costs. Wages are already rising fast, partly as a result of shortage of migrant labour. Nevertheless the government is less inclined than it once was to heed such concerns. It really has been raising minimum-wage levels, one of its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The new rules could help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of the new rules dropped provisions which may have fined companies for resisting workers’ efforts to bargain collectively and which will have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages as a result of management’s refusal to barter with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over fifty percent of your company’s workers to back up collective-bargaining before such action can start. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the doorway to the level of spontaneously-formed teams of workers which have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions within the ACFTU.
But if you take on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also undertaking greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of the latest York University. He believes workers may very well improve pressure around the official unions to represent them better; when they fail, workers could start up the unions and also factory bosses. The brand new rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the security guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, a lot of people were afraid even to mention the term. “Now it is actually used at all times. To ensure is some progress.”