AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry employees are becoming ever bolshier. As outlined by China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the volume of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to more than 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. Nevertheless in areas, they have also begun to give state-controlled unions more capacity to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to see a necessity to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations need 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 generally sides with management. Lately, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specifically in privately run factories where they fear an absence of unions might encourage independent ones to increase. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations from the southern province of Guangdong, the place to find a great deal of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and lots of from the strikes (see map), might commence to change that. They codify the proper of workers to engage in collective bargaining; which is, to negotiate their terms of employment through representatives who speak for many employees. The rules utilize the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to usual term. But, on paper a minimum of, they provide the official unions greater power to initiate negotiations with management as opposed to, as before, 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 published last 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 usually do not are part of the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The latest rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies ought to be paid just like permanent staff (they commonly are paid a lot less). The regulations say there must be “equal buy equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not to embolden workers, but to have their grievances from erupting into open protest that could 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 brand new rules, fearing they would bring about even higher labour costs. Wages are actually rising fast, partly as a result of shortage of migrant labour. However 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 might help do this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters in the new rules dropped provisions which may have fined companies for resisting workers’ tries 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 the 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 entranceway to the kind 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 beneath the ACFTU.
But if you take on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is additionally undertaking greater risk, says Aaron Halegua newest York University. He believes workers will probably improve pressure in the official unions to represent them better; should they fail, workers could start up the unions in addition to factory bosses. The newest rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the protection guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many individuals were afraid even going to mention the term. “Now it can be used constantly. So that is a few progress.”