AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere in search of cheaper workers, anxious and angry employees are becoming ever bolshier. In accordance with China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the number of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to a lot more than 1,300. Over 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 areas, they have also begun to give state-controlled unions more capacity to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to see a requirement to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations have to be connected to 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 times, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specially in privately run factories where they fear not enough 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, house to much of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many of the strikes (see map), might set out to change that. They codify the best of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that is, to barter their relation to employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The principles make use of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational in comparison to the usual term. But, on paper a minimum of, they provide the official unions greater ability to initiate negotiations with management rather than, as before, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security Company in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, might have welcomed a far more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was launched this past year after nine months in jail for taking matters into his own hands and leading a protest sought after of higher wages. “China’s unions do not participate in the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The new rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who happen to be hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies should be paid the same as permanent staff (they commonly are paid a lot less). The regulations say there must be “equal purchase equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is just not to embolden workers, but to have their grievances from erupting into open protest that could turn versus the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control several of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the brand new rules, fearing they will lead to even higher labour costs. Wages already are rising fast, partly due to a shortage of migrant labour. Nevertheless the government is less inclined than it once ended up being to heed such concerns. It really has been raising minimum-wage levels, one of its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The latest rules will help make this happen too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters from the new rules dropped provisions which could have fined companies for resisting workers’ tries to bargain collectively and which could have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages resulting from management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over fifty percent of any company’s workers to back up collective-bargaining before such action may start. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the doorway to the type of spontaneously-formed groups of workers that have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions underneath the ACFTU.
But by taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also dealing with higher risk, says Aaron Halegua of New York University. He believes workers will probably step up pressure around the official unions to represent them better; if they fail, workers could activate the unions and also factory bosses. The new rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the safety guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many individuals were afraid even going to mention the phrase. “Now it really is used on a regular basis. In order that is a few progress.”