AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere looking for cheaper workers, anxious and angry workers are becoming ever bolshier. Based on China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the volume of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to a lot more than 1,300. Over 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 started to give state-controlled unions more ability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to see a need to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations have 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. In recent times, 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 cultivate. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations in the southern province of Guangdong, the place to find much of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many of their strikes (see map), might begin to change that. They codify the correct of workers to take part in collective bargaining; that is certainly, to negotiate their terms of employment through representatives who speak for many employees. The guidelines use the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to the usual term. But, in writing at least, they offer the state 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, strike security companies 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 their own hands and leading a protest needed of higher wages. “China’s unions do not participate in the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The new rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies should be paid just like permanent staff (they commonly are paid much less). The regulations say there ought to be “equal purchase equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is just not to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest which may turn up against the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control most of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the newest rules, fearing they will cause even higher labour costs. Wages are actually rising fast, partly because of shortage of migrant labour. However the government is less inclined than it once would be to heed such concerns. This has been raising minimum-wage levels, one of its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The latest rules might help make this happen too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of your new rules dropped provisions which may have fined companies for resisting workers’ attempts to bargain collectively and which could have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages as a result of management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over fifty percent of your company’s workers to back up collective-bargaining before such action can begin. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entrance to the level of spontaneously-formed categories of workers who have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions under the ACFTU.
But through taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also taking up higher risk, says Aaron Halegua newest York University. He believes workers will probably step up pressure in the official unions to represent them better; should they fail, workers could start up the unions along with factory bosses. The latest rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the security guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many individuals were afraid even going to mention the term. “Now it is actually used on a regular basis. To ensure is a few progress.”