AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere in search of cheaper workers, anxious and angry workers 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 greater than 1,300. During the last quarter they rose threefold year-on-year, with factory workers, taxi drivers and teachers across the country demanding better treatment.
The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. But 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 beginning to discover a requirement to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations have 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 generally sides with management. In recent years, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specially in privately run factories where they fear not enough 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, house to a lot of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many of its strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the right of workers to take part in collective bargaining; that is certainly, to negotiate their relation to employment through representatives who speak for those employees. The principles use the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational in comparison to the usual term. But, on paper at the very least, they offer the official unions greater capacity to initiate negotiations with management rather than, as in the past, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, labor strike security companies in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, might have welcomed a far more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was released this past year after nine months in jail for taking matters into their own hands and leading a protest in demand of higher wages. “China’s unions do not are part of 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 much 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 keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that may turn up against 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 would result in even higher labour costs. Wages happen to be rising fast, partly because of a shortage of migrant labour. However the government is less inclined than it once was to heed such concerns. It really has been raising minimum-wage levels, among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The brand new rules might help make this happen too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters in the new rules dropped provisions which could have fined companies for resisting workers’ efforts 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 your company’s workers to support collective-bargaining before such action can start. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the doorway 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 beneath the ACFTU.
But by taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is additionally taking up greater risk, says Aaron Halegua newest York University. He believes workers are likely to step up pressure on the official unions to represent them better; when they fail, workers could turn on the unions in addition to factory bosses. The latest rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the security guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, lots of people were afraid even to mention the word. “Now it really is used all the time. So that is a few progress.”