AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry staff is becoming ever bolshier. As outlined by China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the volume of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to over 1,300. During 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. Nevertheless in areas, they also have started to give state-controlled unions more power to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to view a desire to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations must 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 usually sides with management. In recent years, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specially in privately run factories where they fear a lack of unions might encourage independent ones to grow. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations within the southern province of Guangdong, home to much of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many of the strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the correct of workers to engage in collective bargaining; which is, to barter their regards to employment through representatives who speak for many employees. The guidelines utilize the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational in comparison to the usual term. But, on paper a minimum of, they offer the state unions greater capacity to initiate negotiations with management as opposed to, as previously, 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 more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was published just last year after nine months in jail for taking matters into his hands and leading a protest popular of higher wages. “China’s unions usually do not belong to the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The latest rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies should be paid similar to permanent staff (they commonly are paid less). The regulations say there ought to 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 against 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 would bring about even higher labour costs. Wages are actually rising fast, partly because of shortage of migrant labour. Although the government is less inclined than it once ended up being to heed such concerns. It has been raising minimum-wage levels, among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The latest rules may help achieve this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of your new rules dropped provisions which could have fined companies for resisting workers’ attempts to bargain collectively and which will have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages resulting from management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over half of the company’s workers to aid collective-bargaining before such action can start. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the door to the sort of spontaneously-formed teams of workers which may have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions within the ACFTU.
But if you take on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also taking up greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of New York University. He believes workers will likely boost pressure about the official unions to represent them better; should they fail, workers could turn on the unions as well as factory bosses. The latest 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 going to mention the term. “Now it is used constantly. In order that is a few progress.”