AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere searching for cheaper workers, anxious and angry staff is becoming ever bolshier. According to China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the quantity of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to a lot more than 1,300. Within the last quarter they rose threefold year-on-year, with factory workers, taxi drivers and teachers across the nation 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 have also started to give state-controlled unions more capacity to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to find out 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 often 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 increase. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations from the southern province of Guangdong, house to much of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many from the strikes (see map), might commence to change that. They codify the right of workers to take part in collective bargaining; which is, to negotiate their regards to employment through representatives who speak for all those employees. The guidelines use the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to the usual term. But, on paper a minimum of, they provide the official unions greater power 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 companies in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, might have welcomed a much more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was released last year after nine months in jail for taking matters into their own hands and leading a protest popular of higher wages. “China’s unions do not belong to the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The newest rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies needs to be paid exactly like permanent staff (they commonly are paid a lot less). The regulations say there ought 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 versus 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 might bring about even higher labour costs. Wages already are rising fast, partly as a result of shortage of migrant labour. But the government is less inclined than it once would be 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 might help do this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of the new rules dropped provisions which could have fined companies for resisting workers’ attempts 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 any company’s workers to aid 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 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 within the ACFTU.
But by taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU can also be dealing with higher risk, says Aaron Halegua newest York University. He believes workers will probably improve pressure in the official unions to represent them better; when they fail, workers could activate the unions along with 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 people were afraid even going to mention the term. “Now it really is used on a regular basis. To ensure that is a few progress.”