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 number of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to more than 1,300. Over the last quarter they rose threefold year-on-year, with factory workers, taxi drivers and teachers across the nation demanding better treatment.
The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. Nevertheless in areas, they also have started to give state-controlled unions more capacity to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to find out a requirement to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations have to 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 usually sides with management. In recent times, 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 in the southern province of Guangdong, home to a lot of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and a lot of of their strikes (see map), might commence to change that. They codify the correct of workers to engage in collective bargaining; which is, to barter their terms of employment through representatives who speak for many employees. The rules use the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational in comparison to the usual term. But, in writing at least, they provide the state unions greater capacity to initiate negotiations with management rather than, as in past times, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security Company in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, might have welcomed a far more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was published last year after nine months in jail when planning on taking matters into his hands and leading a protest sought after 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 ought to be paid exactly like permanent staff (they commonly are paid less). The regulations say there ought to be “equal pay money for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not to embolden workers, but to have 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 many of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the new rules, fearing they might lead to even higher labour costs. Wages are already 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. It has been raising minimum-wage levels, among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The new rules might help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters from the new rules dropped provisions which may have fined companies for resisting workers’ attempts to bargain collectively and which will have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages as a result of management’s refusal to barter with workers’ representatives. The regulations require more than half of any company’s workers to support collective-bargaining before such action can start. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entranceway to the sort of spontaneously-formed categories of workers which may have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions beneath the ACFTU.
But by using on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is additionally taking up 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 as well as factory bosses. The latest rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the protection guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many people were afraid even going to mention the word. “Now it really is used constantly. In order that is some progress.”