AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere looking for cheaper workers, anxious and angry workers are becoming ever bolshier. Based on China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the volume 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. However in areas, they also have started 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 desire to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations have to be affiliated with 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. In recent times, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, especially in privately run factories where they fear too little unions might encourage independent ones to increase. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations inside the southern province of Guangdong, home to a lot of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and several of the strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the best of workers to take part in collective bargaining; that is certainly, to barter their terms of employment through representatives who speak for those employees. The guidelines utilize the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational than the usual term. But, in writing at least, they provide the state unions greater capability to initiate negotiations with management rather than, as previously, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, might have welcomed a more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was launched just last year 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 usually do not belong to the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The latest rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him that 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 will not be 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 most of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the brand new rules, fearing they would cause even higher labour costs. Wages already are rising fast, partly because 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, one among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The brand new rules will help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters from the new rules dropped provisions which will have fined companies for resisting workers’ tries to bargain collectively and which may 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 the company’s workers to back up 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 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 taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is additionally undertaking greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of the latest York University. He believes workers will probably step up pressure around the official unions to represent them better; once they fail, workers could switch on the unions as well as 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, many people were afraid even going to mention the term. “Now it is actually used constantly. To ensure that is a few progress.”