AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere looking for cheaper workers, anxious and angry employees 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 over 1,300. Within 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. Nevertheless in parts of the country, they also have begun to give state-controlled unions more ability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to discover a need to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations really need 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 generally sides with management. In recent years, 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 cultivate. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations within the southern province of Guangdong, the place to find much of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and lots of from the strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the best of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that is certainly, to negotiate their regards to employment through representatives who speak for all those employees. The guidelines make use of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to the usual term. But, on paper a minimum of, they give the official unions greater power to initiate negotiations with management as opposed to, as in the past, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, might have welcomed a much more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was released last year after nine months in jail to take matters into his own hands and leading a protest sought after of higher wages. “China’s unions 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 the same as permanent staff (they commonly are paid much less). The regulations say there has to be “equal buy equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest which may turn against the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control most of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the latest rules, fearing they might bring about even higher labour costs. Wages are already rising fast, partly because of shortage of migrant labour. But the government is less inclined than it once ended up being to heed such concerns. It has been raising minimum-wage levels, among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The newest rules will help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of your new rules dropped provisions which will have fined companies for resisting workers’ efforts to bargain collectively and which may 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 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 entranceway to the level of spontaneously-formed categories of workers which may 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 likewise undertaking greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of brand new York University. He believes workers will likely boost pressure about the official unions to represent them better; should they fail, workers could turn on the unions in addition to factory bosses. The new 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 saying. “Now it really is used all the time. To ensure that is a few progress.”