AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry employees are becoming ever bolshier. Based on China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the amount 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 throughout the country 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 begun to give state-controlled unions more capability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to find out a requirement to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations 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 normally sides with management. Lately, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, particularly in privately run factories where they fear too little unions might encourage independent ones to grow. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations inside the southern province of Guangdong, the location of a great deal of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and a lot of of the strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the best of workers to take part in collective bargaining; that is, to barter their terms of employment through representatives who speak for those employees. The principles take advantage of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to the usual term. But, on paper a minimum of, they offer the state unions greater ability to initiate negotiations with management as an alternative to, as in the past, 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 published this past year after nine months in jail when planning on taking matters into his very own hands and leading a protest needed of higher wages. “China’s unions tend not to participate in the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The brand new rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who definitely are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies should be paid the same as permanent staff (they commonly are paid a lot less). The regulations say there has to be “equal pay money for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that might turn from the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control several of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the new rules, fearing they will result in even higher labour costs. Wages already are rising fast, partly because of shortage of migrant labour. Although the government is less inclined than it once ended up being to heed such concerns. It really 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 will help do this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters from the new rules dropped provisions which could have fined companies for resisting workers’ tries to bargain collectively and which would 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 half of any company’s workers to assist 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 kind of spontaneously-formed sets of workers which may have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions underneath the ACFTU.
But by using on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is additionally dealing with greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of the latest York University. He believes workers will likely boost pressure around the official unions to represent them better; should they fail, workers could start up the unions and also factory bosses. The newest rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the safety guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, lots of people were afraid even to mention the term. “Now it is used constantly. In order that is some progress.”