AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere looking for cheaper workers, anxious and angry staff is becoming ever bolshier. As outlined by China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the quantity of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to greater than 1,300. Over 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 areas, they have also begun to give state-controlled unions more capability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to find out a requirement to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations must 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 often sides with management. Lately, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, particularly in privately run factories where they fear not enough unions might encourage independent ones to increase. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations from the southern province of Guangdong, the place to find most of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and a lot of of the strikes (see map), might begin to change that. They codify the proper of workers to take part in collective bargaining; which is, to barter their regards to employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The rules utilize the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational in comparison to the usual term. But, in writing at least, they offer 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, labor strike security companies in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, might have welcomed a more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was introduced just last year after nine months in jail to take matters into their own hands and leading a protest in demand of higher wages. “China’s unions usually do not belong to the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The latest rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who happen to be hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies must be paid exactly like permanent staff (they commonly are paid a lot less). The regulations say there has to be “equal purchase equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim will not be to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that might turn from the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control most of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the latest rules, fearing they might lead to even higher labour costs. Wages are already rising fast, partly due to a shortage of migrant labour. But the government is less inclined than it once ended up being to heed such concerns. This has been raising minimum-wage levels, among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The latest rules will help achieve this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of your new rules dropped provisions which may have fined companies for resisting workers’ attempts to bargain collectively and which could have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages due to management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over fifty percent of any 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 kind of spontaneously-formed teams of workers who have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions underneath the ACFTU.
But through taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU can also be taking up higher risk, says Aaron Halegua newest York University. He believes workers are likely to step-up pressure around the official unions to represent them better; if they fail, workers could turn on the unions as well as factory bosses. The newest rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the protection guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many individuals were afraid even going to mention the term. “Now it can be used on a regular basis. So that is some progress.”