AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere looking for cheaper workers, anxious and angry workers are becoming ever bolshier. As outlined by 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 throughout the country demanding better treatment.
The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. But also in parts of the country, they also have begun to give state-controlled unions more power to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to view a necessity to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations must be associated with their 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. Recently, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, particularly 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 from the southern province of Guangdong, home to a lot of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many of its strikes (see map), might set out to change that. They codify the right of workers to take part in collective bargaining; which is, to barter their regards 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 the usual term. But, in writing no less than, they give the state unions greater ability to initiate negotiations with management as an alternative to, 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 released last year after nine months in jail for taking matters into his very own hands and leading a protest sought after of higher wages. “China’s unions do not belong to the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The new rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who definitely are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies ought to be paid exactly like permanent staff (they commonly are paid less). The regulations say there must be “equal pay for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is just not to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that could 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 will bring about even higher labour costs. Wages already are rising fast, partly as a result of shortage of migrant labour. Although 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 do this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of your 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 caused by management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over half of your 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 type of spontaneously-formed teams of workers who have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions underneath the ACFTU.
But if you take on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also undertaking higher risk, says Aaron Halegua newest York University. He believes workers will probably boost pressure about the official unions to represent them better; when they fail, workers could start up the unions along with factory bosses. The latest rules stop far lacking 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 all the time. To ensure that is a few progress.”