AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry workers are becoming ever bolshier. According to 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. In 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. Nevertheless in areas, they also have begun to give state-controlled unions more power 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 must 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, the location of most of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and several of its strikes (see map), might set out to change that. They codify the proper of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that is certainly, to negotiate their relation to employment through representatives who speak for many employees. The principles make use of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational in comparison to the usual term. But, on paper at least, they provide the state unions greater capability to initiate negotiations with management as an alternative to, 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, might have welcomed a much more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was introduced this past 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 tend not to fit in with the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The brand new rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him that are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies needs to be paid exactly like permanent staff (they commonly are paid much less). The regulations say there has to be “equal pay money for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is just not to embolden workers, but to have their grievances from erupting into open protest that 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 latest rules, fearing they would lead to even higher labour costs. Wages are actually rising fast, partly as a result of shortage of migrant labour. Nevertheless the government is less inclined than it once was to heed such concerns. This has been raising minimum-wage levels, certainly one of its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The brand new rules may help achieve this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of your new rules dropped provisions which may have fined companies for resisting workers’ tries to bargain collectively and which will 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 the company’s workers to aid collective-bargaining before such action can start. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entranceway 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 within the ACFTU.
But by taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also undertaking greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of New York University. He believes workers will likely boost pressure on the official unions to represent them better; when they fail, workers could start up the unions and also factory bosses. The new rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the security guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many people were afraid even to mention the phrase. “Now it is actually used on a regular basis. In order that is a few progress.”