AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry staff is becoming ever bolshier. In accordance with China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the amount of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to a lot more than 1,300. Within the last quarter they rose threefold year-on-year, with factory workers, taxi drivers and teachers throughout the country demanding better treatment.
The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. However 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 starting to find out a requirement to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations need to be connected to 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, specially 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 place to find most of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and a lot of of its strikes (see map), might set out to change that. They codify the correct of workers to take part in collective bargaining; that is certainly, to negotiate their relation to employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The principles use the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational in comparison to the usual term. But, on paper at least, they give the state unions greater ability to initiate negotiations with management rather than, as in the past, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security Company in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, might have welcomed a much more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was released just last year after nine months in jail when planning on taking matters into his very own hands and leading a protest popular of higher wages. “China’s unions usually do not belong to the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The latest rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who definitely are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies must be paid similar to permanent staff (they commonly are paid less). The regulations say there has to be “equal buy equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim will not be to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that may turn up against 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 might bring about even higher labour costs. Wages happen to be rising fast, partly because of shortage of migrant labour. Although the government is less inclined than it once ended up being 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 newest rules may help achieve this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters in the new rules dropped provisions which would have fined companies for resisting workers’ efforts to bargain collectively and which may have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages as a result of management’s refusal to barter with workers’ representatives. The regulations require more than half of a company’s workers to aid collective-bargaining before such action can begin. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the door to the sort of spontaneously-formed sets of workers which have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions beneath the ACFTU.
But by using on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is likewise dealing with higher risk, says Aaron Halegua of New York University. He believes workers will probably boost pressure in the official unions to represent them better; if they fail, workers could turn on the unions in addition to factory bosses. The new rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the safety guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many people were afraid even to mention the phrase. “Now it can be used on a regular basis. So that is a few progress.”