AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere looking for cheaper workers, anxious and angry personnel 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 more than 1,300. During 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. Nevertheless in parts of the country, they have also begun to give state-controlled unions more capability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to see a requirement to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations really need 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 generally sides with management. Lately, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specially in privately run factories where they fear a lack of unions might encourage independent ones to grow. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations within the southern province of Guangdong, the place to find a great deal of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and a lot of of their strikes (see map), might set out to change that. They codify the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that is, to barter their relation 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 provide the state unions greater ability to initiate negotiations with management as opposed to, as in past times, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, could have welcomed a much more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was released last year after nine months in jail to take matters into his very own hands and leading a protest needed of higher wages. “China’s unions tend not to fit in with the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The new rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him that are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies should be paid exactly like permanent staff (they commonly are paid much less). The regulations say there should be “equal purchase equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not really to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that might 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 brand new rules, fearing they might cause even higher labour costs. Wages are actually rising fast, partly as a result of shortage of migrant labour. Nevertheless the government is less inclined than it once would be to heed such concerns. It really has been raising minimum-wage levels, among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The brand new rules could help make this happen too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters from the new rules dropped provisions which will have fined companies for resisting workers’ attempts to bargain collectively and which would have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages as a result of management’s refusal to barter with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over half of a company’s workers to back up collective-bargaining before such action can start. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entranceway 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 within the ACFTU.
But by taking 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 will likely boost pressure in the official unions to represent them better; if they fail, workers could switch on the unions in addition to factory bosses. The brand new rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the safety 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 on a regular basis. To ensure that is some progress.”