AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry personnel are becoming ever bolshier. As outlined by China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the number 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 across the nation demanding better treatment.
The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. But in areas, they have also started to give state-controlled unions more capability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to see 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 often sides with management. Lately, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specifically in privately run factories where they fear too little unions might encourage independent ones to cultivate. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations within the southern province of Guangdong, the place to find a lot of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many of the strikes (see map), might set out to change that. They codify the best of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that may be, to negotiate their regards to employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The guidelines take advantage of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to usual term. But, on paper at the very least, they offer the state unions greater power 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 companies in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, will have welcomed a far more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was launched this past year after nine months in jail when planning on taking matters into his own hands and leading a protest in demand of higher wages. “China’s unions usually do not fit in with the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The newest rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who happen to be hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies must be paid exactly like permanent staff (they commonly are paid a lot less). The regulations say there should be “equal buy equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not really to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest which 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 would bring about even higher labour costs. Wages are already rising fast, partly because of a shortage of migrant labour. Although the government is less inclined than it once was 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 brand new rules will help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters in the new rules dropped provisions which will have fined companies for resisting workers’ attempts 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 over half of any company’s workers to aid collective-bargaining before such action can begin. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the doorway to the type of spontaneously-formed sets of workers that have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions underneath the ACFTU.
But if you take on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is likewise undertaking greater risk, says Aaron Halegua newest York University. He believes workers will likely improve pressure on the official unions to represent them better; should they fail, workers could turn on the unions along with factory bosses. The brand new rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the safety guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many individuals were afraid even to mention the word. “Now it can be used all the time. To ensure is a few progress.”