AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry employees 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 over 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. But in areas, they also have begun to give state-controlled unions more ability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning 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 generally sides with management. In recent years, 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 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 begin to change that. They codify the best of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that may be, to barter their regards to employment through representatives who speak for many employees. The guidelines utilize the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational than the usual term. But, on paper a minimum of, they offer the state unions greater power to initiate negotiations with management rather than, as in the past, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security services in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, will have welcomed a more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was launched just last year after nine months in jail when planning on taking matters into his very own hands and leading a protest needed of higher wages. “China’s unions do not 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 ought to be paid exactly like permanent staff (they commonly are paid much less). The regulations say there has to be “equal pay money for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim will not be to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest which may 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 will bring about 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. 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 latest rules could help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of your new rules dropped provisions which would have fined companies for resisting workers’ efforts to bargain collectively and which will have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages resulting from management’s refusal to barter with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over fifty percent of any company’s workers to support collective-bargaining before such action can begin. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entrance 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 within the ACFTU.
But through taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is additionally dealing with greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of the latest York University. He believes workers will probably boost pressure around the official unions to represent them better; if they fail, workers could activate the unions in addition to factory bosses. The latest rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the safety guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, lots of people were afraid even to mention the term. “Now it is used at all times. In order that is a few progress.”