AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere looking for cheaper workers, anxious and angry employees are becoming ever bolshier. As outlined by China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the number 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 throughout the country demanding better treatment.
The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. However in parts of the country, they also have begun to give state-controlled unions more capacity to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to see a need to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations need to be affiliated 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 usually sides with management. Lately, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, particularly in privately run factories where they fear too little unions might encourage independent ones to grow. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations within the southern province of Guangdong, house to a lot of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and several of the strikes (see map), might set out to change that. They codify the correct of workers to take part in collective bargaining; which is, to barter their regards to employment through representatives who speak for many employees. The principles utilize the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational in comparison to the usual term. But, on paper no less than, they provide the official unions greater capacity 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, could 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 hands and leading a protest needed of higher wages. “China’s unions usually do not belong to the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The new rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him that are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies needs to be paid just like permanent staff (they commonly are paid much less). The regulations say there must be “equal buy equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not really to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that may turn versus the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control several of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the latest rules, fearing they will lead to even higher labour costs. Wages are actually rising fast, partly due to a 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 new rules might help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters from the new rules dropped provisions which will have fined companies for resisting workers’ attempts to bargain collectively and which would have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages resulting from management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require more than half of the company’s workers to aid collective-bargaining before such action may start. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the door to the level of spontaneously-formed sets of workers who have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions within the ACFTU.
But by using on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is additionally taking up greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of brand new York University. He believes workers are likely to boost pressure about the official unions to represent them better; should they fail, workers could turn on the unions along with factory bosses. The brand new rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the safety guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many individuals were afraid even going to mention the word. “Now it can be used on a regular basis. So that is some progress.”