AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere looking for cheaper workers, anxious and angry employees 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. During 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 also in areas, they also have begun to give state-controlled unions more capacity to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to view a necessity to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations must be connected to their state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), whose constitution describes the working class as “the leading class of China” but which usually sides with management. Lately, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, especially in privately run factories where they fear an absence of unions might encourage independent ones to increase. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations within the southern province of Guangdong, the location of much of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many of their strikes (see map), might begin to change that. They codify the right of workers to take part in collective bargaining; that is certainly, to negotiate their terms of employment through representatives who speak for many employees. The guidelines utilize the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to usual term. But, on paper a minimum of, they provide the state unions greater power to initiate negotiations with management instead of, as previously, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security services in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, might have welcomed an even more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was released this past year after nine months in jail when planning on taking matters into his hands and leading a protest popular of higher wages. “China’s unions usually do not participate in the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The latest rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who happen to be hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies should be paid just like permanent staff (they commonly are paid far less). The regulations say there must be “equal pay for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not really to embolden workers, but to have their grievances from erupting into open protest that may turn against the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control a lot of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the latest rules, fearing they could bring about even higher labour costs. Wages happen to be rising fast, partly because of a shortage of migrant labour. Nevertheless the government is less inclined than it once ended up being to heed such concerns. It really 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 may help do 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 due to management’s refusal to barter with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over half of a company’s workers to back up collective-bargaining before such action may start. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entrance to the kind of spontaneously-formed groups of workers that 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 taking on higher risk, says Aaron Halegua newest York University. He believes workers may very well boost pressure on the official unions to represent them better; when they fail, workers could turn on the unions along with factory bosses. The new rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the security guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many people were afraid even going to mention the term. “Now it can be used constantly. To ensure that is a few progress.”