AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere in search of 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 greater than 1,300. Over the last quarter they rose threefold year-on-year, with factory workers, taxi drivers and teachers country wide 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 also have started to give state-controlled unions more ability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to see a necessity to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations need to be connected to 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. In recent times, 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, home to a great deal of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and lots of from the strikes (see map), might begin to change that. They codify the best of workers to take part in collective bargaining; which is, to barter their terms of employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The guidelines use the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational than the usual term. But, in writing at the very least, they offer the state unions greater capacity to initiate negotiations with management instead of, as in past times, 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 an even more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was introduced a year ago after nine months in jail to take matters into his very own hands and leading a protest sought after of higher wages. “China’s unions do not belong to the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The brand new rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies must be paid similar to permanent staff (they commonly are paid much less). The regulations say there must be “equal pay money for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not really to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that might turn versus 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 will result in even higher labour costs. Wages are actually rising fast, partly because of shortage of migrant labour. But the government is less inclined than it once ended up being to heed such concerns. It 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 of your new rules dropped provisions which will have fined companies for resisting workers’ efforts to bargain collectively and which would have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages caused by management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require more than half of your company’s workers to support collective-bargaining before such action can begin. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the doorway to the sort 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 by using on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is likewise dealing with higher risk, says Aaron Halegua newest York University. He believes workers will likely improve pressure in the official unions to represent them better; once they fail, workers could switch on the unions along with 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, many people were afraid even to mention the word. “Now it is used on a regular basis. To ensure is some progress.”