AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere searching for cheaper workers, anxious and angry personnel 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 a lot more than 1,300. Within 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. Nevertheless in areas, they have also begun to give state-controlled unions more power to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to discover a necessity to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations need to 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, especially in privately run factories where they fear an absence of unions might encourage independent ones to grow. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations from the southern province of Guangdong, house to a great deal 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 engage in collective bargaining; which is, to barter their terms of 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 at least, they offer the official unions greater capability to initiate negotiations with management instead of, as in the past, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security Company in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, could have welcomed a much more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was launched this past year after nine months in jail for taking matters into his hands and leading a protest sought after of higher wages. “China’s unions usually do not belong to the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The brand new rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies ought to be paid similar to permanent staff (they commonly are paid less). The regulations say there has to be “equal pay for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is just not to embolden workers, but to have 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 several of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the newest rules, fearing they could bring about even higher labour costs. Wages are actually rising fast, partly due to a shortage of migrant labour. Although the government is less inclined than it once was to heed such concerns. This has been raising minimum-wage levels, one among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The newest rules might help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of the 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 due to management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over half of your company’s workers to aid 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 level of spontaneously-formed categories of workers that 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 can also be undertaking greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of New York University. He believes workers will probably improve pressure in the official unions to represent them better; if they fail, workers could start up the unions in addition to factory bosses. The new rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the protection guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many individuals were afraid even going to mention the term. “Now it is used at all times. To ensure that is a few progress.”