AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere in search of cheaper workers, anxious and angry staff is becoming ever bolshier. According to 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 across the nation demanding better treatment.
The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. But in parts of the country, they have also 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 desire 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 often sides with management. Recently, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specifically in privately run factories where they fear an absence 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, home to most of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and several of the strikes (see map), might begin 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 rules use the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational than the usual term. But, on paper at least, they give the state unions greater power to initiate negotiations with management as an alternative to, as previously, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security companies in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, would have welcomed a much more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was published this past year after nine months in jail for taking matters into his own hands and leading a protest in demand of higher wages. “China’s unions tend not to belong to the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The newest rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who happen to be hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies must be paid exactly like permanent staff (they commonly are paid a lot less). The regulations say there should be “equal buy equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that might 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 new rules, fearing they will result in even higher labour costs. Wages happen to be rising fast, partly because of a shortage of migrant labour. But the government is less inclined than it once ended up being to heed such concerns. This has been raising minimum-wage levels, certainly one of its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The newest rules may help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of the new rules dropped provisions which will 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 fifty percent of your company’s workers to back up collective-bargaining before such action may start. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the doorway to the kind of spontaneously-formed categories 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 by taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also taking on higher risk, says Aaron Halegua newest York University. He believes workers will likely improve pressure about the official unions to represent them better; should they fail, workers could switch on the unions and also factory bosses. The brand new rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the security guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, a lot of people were afraid even to mention the saying. “Now it really is used on a regular basis. To ensure is a few progress.”