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. 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. But also in areas, they also have started to give state-controlled unions more power to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to find out a desire to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations must 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. Lately, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specifically in privately run factories where they fear an absence of 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, home to a lot of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many of their strikes (see map), might set out to change that. They codify the best of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that is, to barter their regards to employment through representatives who speak for many employees. The principles use the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational than the usual term. But, in writing at the very least, they offer the official unions greater ability to initiate negotiations with management instead of, 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 an even more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was introduced this past year after nine months in jail to take matters into his own hands and leading a protest needed of higher wages. “China’s unions will not belong to the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The newest rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him that are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies needs to be paid the same as permanent staff (they commonly are paid much less). The regulations say there should be “equal purchase equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim will not be to embolden workers, but to have their grievances from erupting into open protest that may 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 newest rules, fearing they will lead to even higher labour costs. Wages are already rising fast, partly as a result of shortage of migrant labour. However the government is less inclined than it once was to heed such concerns. It has been raising minimum-wage levels, one of its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The latest rules could help do this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of the new rules dropped provisions which will have fined companies for resisting workers’ attempts to bargain collectively and which could have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages as a result of management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over half of the company’s workers to aid collective-bargaining before such action can begin. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entranceway to the type of spontaneously-formed groups of workers which have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions under the ACFTU.
But if you take on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also undertaking 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; when they fail, workers could turn on the unions and also 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, lots of people were afraid even to mention the phrase. “Now it is actually used all the time. So that is a few progress.”