AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere searching for cheaper workers, anxious and angry staff is 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 a lot 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. But in parts of the country, they also have begun to give state-controlled unions more capability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to view a requirement 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 normally sides with management. In recent years, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, particularly in privately run factories where they fear too little unions might encourage independent ones to grow. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations inside the southern province of Guangdong, home to a great deal of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and several of their strikes (see map), might set out to change that. They codify the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining; which is, to barter their relation to employment through representatives who speak for those employees. The rules take advantage of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to usual term. But, on paper at least, they provide the state unions greater capability to initiate negotiations with management instead of, as previously, 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 popular of higher wages. “China’s unions usually do not participate in the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The brand new rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who definitely are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies needs to be paid similar to permanent staff (they commonly are paid less). The regulations say there ought to be “equal pay money for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is just not to embolden workers, but to have 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 would result in even higher labour costs. Wages happen to be rising fast, partly because of shortage of migrant labour. However 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 latest rules could help make this happen 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 could have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages due to management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require more than half of the company’s workers to support collective-bargaining before such action may start. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entrance to the level 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 beneath the ACFTU.
But if you take on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also undertaking higher risk, says Aaron Halegua of New York University. He believes workers are likely to boost pressure in the official unions to represent them better; when they fail, workers could activate the unions and also factory bosses. The new rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the protection guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, a lot of people were afraid even going to mention the phrase. “Now it is used constantly. In order that is a few progress.”