AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry personnel are becoming ever bolshier. As outlined by China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the amount 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. However in areas, 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 desire to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations have to 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 generally sides with management. Recently, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specifically in privately run factories where they fear a lack of 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, house to much of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and lots of of their strikes (see map), might begin to change that. They codify the best of workers to take part in collective bargaining; that may be, to barter their regards to employment through representatives who speak for many employees. The principles make use of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational than the usual term. But, on paper at least, they provide the official unions greater ability 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 services in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, will have welcomed a far more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was published last year after nine months in jail for taking matters into their own hands and leading a protest needed of higher wages. “China’s unions usually do not participate in the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The newest rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who happen to be 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 has to be “equal purchase equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is just not to embolden workers, but to have their grievances from erupting into open protest that might turn up against the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control a lot of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the brand new rules, fearing they might result in even higher labour costs. Wages happen to be rising fast, partly because of shortage of migrant labour. Nevertheless the government is less inclined than it once ended up being to heed such concerns. This has been raising minimum-wage levels, among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The new rules may help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters from the new rules dropped provisions which will have fined companies for resisting workers’ tries to bargain collectively and which would have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages due to management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over fifty percent of a company’s workers to back up collective-bargaining before such action can begin. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the doorway 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 using on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU can also be taking up higher risk, says Aaron Halegua of the latest York University. He believes workers will probably boost pressure around the official unions to represent them better; once they fail, workers could turn on the unions in addition to factory bosses. The new rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the protection guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, lots of people were afraid even going to mention the term. “Now it is used at all times. To ensure that is some progress.”