AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere searching for cheaper workers, anxious and angry staff is becoming ever bolshier. As outlined by China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the quantity 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 throughout the country demanding better treatment.
The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. But in areas, they have also begun to give state-controlled unions more power to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to view a need to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations must be connected to the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), whose constitution describes the working class as “the leading class of China” but which usually sides with management. In recent years, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, particularly 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 a lot of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and a lot of of the strikes (see map), might commence to change that. They codify the right of workers to take part in collective bargaining; which is, to negotiate their relation to employment through representatives who speak for all those employees. The guidelines utilize the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to the usual term. But, in writing a minimum of, they offer the state unions greater capacity to initiate negotiations with management as opposed to, as before, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security Company in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, could have welcomed a more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was introduced just last year after nine months in jail for taking matters into his very own hands and leading a protest sought after of higher wages. “China’s unions will not belong to the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The newest rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who definitely 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 ought to be “equal purchase equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not really to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that could turn from 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 would lead to even higher labour costs. Wages are already rising fast, partly as a result of shortage of migrant labour. But the government is less inclined than it once would be to heed such concerns. It really 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 newest rules might help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters from the new rules dropped provisions which could have fined companies for resisting workers’ attempts to bargain collectively and which could have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages caused by management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over half of the company’s workers to assist collective-bargaining before such action can begin. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the door to the level of spontaneously-formed groups 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 by using on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU can also be undertaking greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of brand new York University. He believes workers will likely boost pressure on the official unions to represent them better; once they fail, workers could activate the unions along with factory bosses. The brand new rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the security guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, a lot of people were afraid even to mention the word. “Now it can be used constantly. To ensure is a few progress.”