AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere looking for cheaper workers, anxious and angry employees are becoming ever bolshier. According to China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the quantity of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to more than 1,300. In the last quarter they rose threefold year-on-year, with factory workers, taxi drivers and teachers across 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 ability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to discover 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 normally sides with management. In recent times, 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 in the southern province of Guangdong, the location of much of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and a lot of of their strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the correct 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 take advantage of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to the usual term. But, in writing at the very least, they offer the official unions greater capacity to initiate negotiations with management instead of, as in the past, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security services in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, might have welcomed a far more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was released this past year after nine months in jail for taking matters into his hands and leading a protest popular of higher wages. “China’s unions usually do not fit in with the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The newest rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who definitely are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies needs to be paid just like permanent staff (they commonly are paid a lot less). The regulations say there must be “equal pay for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is just not to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that could turn against the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control several of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the newest rules, fearing they could bring about even higher labour costs. Wages happen to be rising fast, partly due to a shortage of migrant labour. Although the government is less inclined than it once would be to heed such concerns. This has been raising minimum-wage levels, one of its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The brand new rules could help achieve this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of your new rules dropped provisions which would have fined companies for resisting workers’ attempts 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 more than half of your company’s workers to support collective-bargaining before such action can start. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the door to the level of spontaneously-formed teams of workers which may have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions within the ACFTU.
But if you take on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also taking up higher risk, says Aaron Halegua of the latest York University. He believes workers will likely step-up pressure on the official unions to represent them better; should they fail, workers could turn on the unions and also factory bosses. The newest rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the protection 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 on a regular basis. In order that is some progress.”