AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry personnel are becoming ever bolshier. Based on China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the number of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to greater 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. However in areas, 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 find out a necessity to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations have to be connected to their 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. Lately, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, particularly in privately run factories where they fear not enough unions might encourage independent ones to increase. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations inside the southern province of Guangdong, home to much of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and a lot of of its strikes (see map), might begin to change that. They codify the proper of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that is, to negotiate their relation to employment through representatives who speak for many employees. The rules make use of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to the usual term. But, in writing a minimum of, they give the official unions greater power to initiate negotiations with management rather than, as previously, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security services in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, might have welcomed a more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was released just last year after nine months in jail to take matters into his hands and leading a protest sought after of higher wages. “China’s unions usually do not fit in with the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The latest 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 similar to permanent staff (they commonly are paid far less). The regulations say there has to be “equal pay for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not to embolden workers, but to keep 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 a lot of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the new rules, fearing they will bring about even higher labour costs. Wages already are 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. It 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 new rules may help make this happen too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of your new rules dropped provisions which would have fined companies for resisting workers’ tries to bargain collectively and which may have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages as a result of management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require more than half of a company’s workers to support collective-bargaining before such action can begin. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the door to the sort 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 within the ACFTU.
But by using on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also taking on higher risk, says Aaron Halegua newest York University. He believes workers may very well boost pressure on the official unions to represent them better; once they fail, workers could switch on the unions in addition to factory bosses. The newest rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the protection guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many people were afraid even to mention the saying. “Now it is actually used constantly. To ensure that is a few progress.”