AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere looking for cheaper workers, anxious and angry workers are becoming ever bolshier. Based on China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the amount of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to a lot more than 1,300. In the last quarter they rose threefold year-on-year, with factory workers, taxi drivers and teachers country wide demanding better treatment.
The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. However in areas, they have also started to give state-controlled unions more capacity to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to view a need to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations have 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 normally sides with management. In recent years, 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 grow. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations inside the southern province of Guangdong, the place to find a great deal of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and lots of from the strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the right of workers to take part in collective bargaining; that is certainly, to negotiate their relation to employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The principles utilize the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational in comparison to the usual term. But, on paper a minimum of, they give the official unions greater ability to initiate negotiations with management as opposed to, as in past times, 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 a much more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was introduced this past year after nine months in jail for taking matters into his very own hands and leading a protest sought after of higher wages. “China’s unions tend not to 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 needs to be paid similar to permanent staff (they commonly are paid far less). The regulations say there has to be “equal pay money for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is just not to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that might 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 newest rules, fearing they will lead to even higher labour costs. Wages are already rising fast, partly because of a shortage of migrant labour. But the government is less inclined than it once would be 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 latest rules may help make this happen too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of the 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 half of a company’s workers to support collective-bargaining before such action can begin. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the door to the level of spontaneously-formed categories 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 by taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is likewise undertaking greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of the latest York University. He believes workers may very well improve pressure in the official unions to represent them better; once they fail, workers could start up the unions as well as factory bosses. The latest rules stop far lacking 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 is used all the time. So that is some progress.”