AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere looking for cheaper workers, anxious and angry staff is becoming ever bolshier. According to China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the number of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to over 1,300. During 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. But also in parts of the country, they have also started to give state-controlled unions more ability 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 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, specifically in privately run factories where they fear not enough unions might encourage independent ones to develop. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations from the southern province of Guangdong, the place to find a lot of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and lots of of the strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the correct of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that is certainly, to barter their relation to employment through representatives who speak for those employees. The guidelines take advantage of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational in comparison 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 previously, 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 more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was launched a year ago after nine months in jail when planning on taking matters into their own hands and leading a protest in demand of higher wages. “China’s unions tend not to participate in the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The 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 just like permanent staff (they commonly are paid less). The regulations say there must be “equal pay money for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not to embolden workers, but to have their grievances from erupting into open protest that may turn from the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control a lot of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the brand new rules, fearing they could cause even higher labour costs. Wages already are rising fast, partly as a result of shortage of migrant labour. Nevertheless the government is less inclined than it once would be to heed such concerns. It really has been raising minimum-wage levels, one among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The new rules might help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of your new rules dropped provisions which would have fined companies for resisting workers’ efforts to bargain collectively and which could have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages due to management’s refusal to barter with workers’ representatives. The regulations require more than half of your company’s workers to assist collective-bargaining before such action may start. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entrance to the kind of spontaneously-formed sets 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 dealing with higher risk, says Aaron Halegua newest York University. He believes workers may very well improve pressure in the official unions to represent them better; should they fail, workers could activate the unions as well as 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, a lot of people were afraid even going to mention the saying. “Now it is actually used on a regular basis. In order that is some progress.”