AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry workers are becoming ever bolshier. As outlined by China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the volume of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to more than 1,300. In the last quarter they rose threefold year-on-year, with factory workers, taxi drivers and teachers across the nation demanding better treatment.
The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. But in areas, they also have begun to give state-controlled unions more ability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to find out a necessity to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations really need to be connected to the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), whose constitution describes the working class as “the leading class of China” but which generally sides with management. In recent times, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, particularly in privately run factories where they fear not enough unions might encourage independent ones to cultivate. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations within the southern province of Guangdong, the location of a great deal of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and lots of of their strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the right of workers to take part in collective bargaining; that is, to negotiate their regards to employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The guidelines take advantage of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to the usual term. But, in writing at the very least, they give the official unions greater capacity to initiate negotiations with management rather than, as before, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security services in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, will have welcomed an even more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was launched this past year after nine months in jail when planning on taking matters into his own hands and leading a protest needed of higher wages. “China’s unions tend not to participate in the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The new rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who definitely are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies needs to be paid similar to permanent staff (they commonly are paid far less). The regulations say there has to be “equal buy equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that may turn up against the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control most of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the new rules, fearing they could lead to even higher labour costs. Wages are actually rising fast, partly as a result of shortage of migrant labour. However the government is less inclined than it once ended up being to heed such concerns. This has been raising minimum-wage levels, one among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The newest rules will help achieve this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of your new rules dropped provisions which will have fined companies for resisting workers’ tries to bargain collectively and which will have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages resulting from management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over fifty percent of your company’s workers to support collective-bargaining before such action can start. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the door to the type 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 underneath the ACFTU.
But by using on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is additionally taking up higher risk, says Aaron Halegua of brand new York University. He believes workers are likely to improve pressure on the official unions to represent them better; when they fail, workers could activate the unions as well as factory bosses. The new rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the protection guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, lots of people were afraid even going to mention the term. “Now it is actually used on a regular basis. In order that is a few progress.”