AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere looking for cheaper workers, anxious and angry staff is becoming ever bolshier. Based on China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the quantity of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to more than 1,300. During 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 areas, they also have started 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 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 too little unions might encourage independent ones to cultivate. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations in the southern province of Guangdong, house to much of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many of its strikes (see map), might begin to change that. They codify the right of workers to take part in collective bargaining; which is, to barter their terms of employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The rules take advantage of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational than the usual term. But, in writing at the very least, they offer the state unions greater capacity to initiate negotiations with management as opposed to, as previously, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security Company in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, could have welcomed a far more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was launched last year after nine months in jail for taking matters into his hands and leading a protest popular of higher wages. “China’s unions tend not to fit in with the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The latest rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who definitely are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies should be paid the same as permanent staff (they commonly are paid less). The regulations say there should be “equal pay for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that may turn against 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 would lead to even higher labour costs. Wages are actually rising fast, partly as a result of shortage of migrant labour. Although the government is less inclined than it once ended up being to heed such concerns. It really 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 will help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of your new rules dropped provisions which could have fined companies for resisting workers’ attempts to bargain collectively and which will have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages caused by management’s refusal to barter with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over half of your company’s workers to aid collective-bargaining before such action can start. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the doorway to the sort 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 beneath the ACFTU.
But if you take on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU can also be taking up greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of the latest York University. He believes workers are likely to step-up pressure around the official unions to represent them better; if they fail, workers could start up the unions as well as factory bosses. The new rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the protection guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many individuals were afraid even going to mention the saying. “Now it is used all the time. In order that is a few progress.”