AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere looking for cheaper workers, anxious and angry personnel are becoming ever bolshier. Based on China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the number of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to more than 1,300. Over 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 in parts of the country, they also have started to give state-controlled unions more power to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to view a need to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations have to be connected to 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. Lately, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specifically in privately run factories where they fear too little unions might encourage independent ones to develop. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations within the southern province of Guangdong, home to a great deal of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and a lot of of their strikes (see map), might commence to change that. They codify the proper of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that is, to negotiate their regards to employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The guidelines utilize the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to usual term. But, in writing no less than, they give the official unions greater power to initiate negotiations with management instead of, as in past times, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, labor unrest security in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, would have welcomed a much more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was introduced last year after nine months in jail when planning on taking matters into his own hands and leading a protest needed of higher wages. “China’s unions tend not to fit in with the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The new rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who definitely are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies should be paid similar to permanent staff (they commonly are paid far less). The regulations say there ought to be “equal pay 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 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 brand new rules, fearing they would cause even higher labour costs. Wages happen to be rising fast, partly because of a shortage of migrant labour. Although the government is less inclined than it once ended up being 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 newest rules could help make this happen too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of your new rules dropped provisions which would have fined companies for resisting workers’ efforts to bargain collectively and which will have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages caused by management’s refusal to barter with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over fifty percent of the 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 doorway to the level 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 dealing with greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of New York University. He believes workers are likely to step up pressure around the official unions to represent them better; once they fail, workers could activate the unions and also factory bosses. The latest rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the security guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many individuals were afraid even to mention the word. “Now it really is used on a regular basis. To ensure is a few progress.”