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 across the nation 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 begun to give state-controlled unions more power to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to see a necessity to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations must be affiliated with the 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. In recent years, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specifically in privately run factories where they fear too little 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, the place to find most of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many from the strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the right of workers to take part in collective bargaining; that may be, to barter their regards to employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The rules use the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to usual term. But, on paper at least, they give the official unions greater capability to initiate negotiations with management rather than, 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, could have welcomed an even more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was introduced a year ago after nine months in jail for taking matters into his very own hands and leading a protest in demand of higher wages. “China’s unions tend not to participate in the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The new rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him that are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies ought to be paid the same as permanent staff (they commonly are paid a lot less). The regulations say there has to be “equal buy equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is just not to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest which may turn against the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control a lot of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the latest rules, fearing they could result in even higher labour costs. Wages are actually rising fast, partly because of shortage of migrant labour. Nevertheless the government is less inclined than it once was to heed such concerns. This has been raising minimum-wage levels, one of its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The newest rules might help do this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters from the new rules dropped provisions which will have fined companies for resisting workers’ tries to bargain collectively and which may 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 assist collective-bargaining before such action may start. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entranceway to the type 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 beneath the ACFTU.
But by using on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is additionally taking on greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of brand new York University. He believes workers will likely step-up pressure about the official unions to represent them better; if they fail, workers could activate the unions along with factory bosses. The brand new rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the security guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many people were afraid even going to mention the saying. “Now it is actually used all the time. To ensure that is some progress.”