AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere in search of cheaper workers, anxious and angry employees are becoming ever bolshier. In accordance with China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the quantity of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to over 1,300. In 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. However in parts of the country, they have also begun to give state-controlled unions more ability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to view a requirement to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations really need to be associated 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 normally sides with management. In recent years, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specifically in privately run factories where they fear not enough unions might encourage independent ones to develop. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations from the southern province of Guangdong, the place to find a great deal of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and a lot of of its strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the best of workers to engage in collective bargaining; which is, to negotiate their terms of employment through representatives who speak for all those employees. The rules make use of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational in comparison to the usual term. But, in writing at the very least, they offer the state unions greater capability 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, strike security Company in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, would have welcomed a much more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was published last year after nine months in jail for taking matters into his own hands and leading a protest needed of higher wages. “China’s unions do not fit in with the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The newest 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 a lot less). The regulations say there ought to be “equal pay money for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim will not be 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 many of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the brand new rules, fearing they will bring about even higher labour costs. Wages are actually rising fast, partly as a result of 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, one among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The brand new rules could help make this happen too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters in the new rules dropped provisions which may have fined companies for resisting workers’ efforts to bargain collectively and which may have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages as a result of management’s refusal to barter with workers’ representatives. The regulations require more than half of your company’s workers to support 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 type 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 underneath the ACFTU.
But by taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU can also be undertaking higher risk, says Aaron Halegua of brand new York University. He believes workers will probably step up pressure on the official unions to represent them better; once they fail, workers could switch on the unions along with factory bosses. The newest rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the protection guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, lots of people were afraid even to mention the word. “Now it is used on a regular basis. To ensure that is a few progress.”