AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry staff is becoming ever bolshier. Based on China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the volume of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to greater than 1,300. Within 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. But also in parts of the country, they also have begun to give state-controlled unions more ability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to see a desire 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, especially in privately run factories where they fear a lack of unions might encourage independent ones to cultivate. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations inside the southern province of Guangdong, the location of most of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many from the strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the proper of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that is, to barter their relation to employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The guidelines take advantage of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational in comparison to the usual term. But, on paper at least, they offer the state unions greater power 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, labor strike security companies in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, would have welcomed a more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was published this past year after nine months in jail to take matters into his hands and leading a protest sought after of higher wages. “China’s unions tend not to fit in with the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The latest rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies must be paid exactly like permanent staff (they commonly are paid much less). The regulations say there ought to be “equal purchase equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not really to embolden workers, but to have their grievances from erupting into open protest that could turn from the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control many of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the newest rules, fearing they could cause even higher labour costs. Wages are actually rising fast, partly due to a shortage of migrant labour. But the government is less inclined than it once would be to heed such concerns. It 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 may help do this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters from the new rules dropped provisions which could have fined companies for resisting workers’ efforts to bargain collectively and which will have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages caused by management’s refusal to negotiate 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 only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entranceway to the type of spontaneously-formed sets of workers which 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 is also dealing with higher risk, says Aaron Halegua of the latest York University. He believes workers may very well step up pressure on the official unions to represent them better; if they fail, workers could turn on the unions as well as factory bosses. The new rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the safety guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, a lot of people were afraid even going to mention the term. “Now it is actually used constantly. To ensure is some progress.”