AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry workers are becoming ever bolshier. As outlined by China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the amount of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to greater than 1,300. Within 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 parts of the country, they have also begun to give state-controlled unions more ability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to view a need to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations must be associated 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. Recently, 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 develop. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations within the southern province of Guangdong, the place to find a lot of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many of the strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the proper of workers to take part in collective bargaining; which is, to negotiate their relation to employment through representatives who speak for those employees. The principles take advantage of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational in comparison to the usual term. But, in writing at least, they offer the state unions greater power to initiate negotiations with management as opposed to, as before, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, labor unrest security in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, might have welcomed a far more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was released just last year after nine months in jail when planning on taking matters into their own hands and leading a protest needed of higher wages. “China’s unions do not participate in the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The brand new rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies needs to be paid the same as permanent staff (they commonly are paid less). The regulations say there must be “equal pay money for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is just not to embolden workers, but to have their grievances from erupting into open protest which may turn up against the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control many of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the brand new rules, fearing they would bring about even higher labour costs. Wages already are rising fast, partly because of a shortage of migrant labour. Nevertheless the government is less inclined than it once would be 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 could help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of your new rules dropped provisions which could have fined companies for resisting workers’ efforts to bargain collectively and which could have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages resulting from management’s refusal to barter with workers’ representatives. The regulations require more than half of any company’s workers to assist collective-bargaining before such action may start. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the doorway to the type of spontaneously-formed sets 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 additionally taking on greater risk, says Aaron Halegua newest York University. He believes workers may very well step-up pressure about the official unions to represent them better; should they fail, workers could turn on the unions and also factory bosses. The latest rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the security guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, lots of people were afraid even going to mention the word. “Now it really is used on a regular basis. To ensure that is a few progress.”