AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere looking for cheaper workers, anxious and angry workers are becoming ever bolshier. In accordance with 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 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 started to give state-controlled unions more capability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to see a requirement to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations need to be affiliated with 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. Lately, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specially in privately run factories where they fear a lack of unions might encourage independent ones to develop. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations within the southern province of Guangdong, home to much of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and several of their strikes (see map), might commence to change that. They codify the best of workers to take part in collective bargaining; that may be, to barter their terms of employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The principles utilize the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to the usual term. But, in writing a minimum of, they give the state unions greater ability to initiate negotiations with management as an alternative to, as in past times, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, labor strike security companies in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, might have welcomed a far more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was released a year ago after nine months in jail for taking matters into his very own hands and leading a protest popular 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 who are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies ought to be paid similar to 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 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 new rules, fearing they might lead to even higher labour costs. Wages already are rising fast, partly because of shortage of migrant labour. Although the government is less inclined than it once ended up being to heed such concerns. It really has been raising minimum-wage levels, certainly one of its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The latest rules might help do this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters in the new rules dropped provisions which could have fined companies for resisting workers’ tries to bargain collectively and which may have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages resulting from management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over half of any company’s workers to aid collective-bargaining before such action may start. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entrance to the type of spontaneously-formed categories 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 can also be taking on higher risk, says Aaron Halegua newest York University. He believes workers will probably step up pressure around the official unions to represent them better; if they fail, workers could activate the unions and also factory bosses. The latest 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 to mention the term. “Now it can be used constantly. To ensure that is some progress.”