AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere searching for cheaper workers, anxious and angry employees are becoming ever bolshier. According to China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the quantity of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to greater than 1,300. During the last quarter they rose threefold year-on-year, with factory workers, taxi drivers and teachers throughout the country demanding better treatment.
The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. Nevertheless in parts of the country, 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 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 times, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, particularly in privately run factories where they fear an absence of unions might encourage independent ones to cultivate. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations from the southern province of Guangdong, the place to find a lot of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and several of its strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the right of workers to take part in collective bargaining; that is, to negotiate their regards to employment through representatives who speak for those employees. The principles make use of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to the usual term. But, in writing at the very least, they give the official unions greater capability to initiate negotiations with management as an alternative to, as before, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, will have welcomed an even more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was published just last year after nine months in jail to take matters into his very own hands and leading a protest in demand of higher wages. “China’s unions will not are part of the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The new rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who definitely are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies ought to be paid exactly like permanent staff (they commonly are paid far less). The regulations say there has to be “equal pay for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not to embolden workers, but to have their grievances from erupting into open protest that could turn versus the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control most of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the brand new rules, fearing they would lead to even higher labour costs. Wages are already rising fast, partly because of a shortage of migrant labour. However the government is less inclined than it once ended up being to heed such concerns. This has been raising minimum-wage levels, one among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The new rules will help make this happen too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of the new rules dropped provisions which may have fined companies for resisting workers’ tries to bargain collectively and which may have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages resulting from management’s refusal to barter with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over half of the company’s workers to back up 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 who have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions under the ACFTU.
But through taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU can also be taking up higher risk, says Aaron Halegua of the latest York University. He believes workers may very well step-up pressure in the official unions to represent them better; when they fail, workers could activate the unions along with factory bosses. The brand new rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the protection guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many people were afraid even to mention the word. “Now it really is used constantly. So that is some progress.”