AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry employees are becoming ever bolshier. In accordance with China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the number of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to more than 1,300. In 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. But also in areas, they have also begun to give state-controlled unions more power to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to see a requirement to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations need 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. In recent years, 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 increase. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations inside the southern province of Guangdong, the place to find most of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and a lot of from the strikes (see map), might begin to change that. They codify the best of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that may be, to barter their relation to employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The guidelines utilize the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to usual term. But, in writing a minimum of, they offer the state unions greater capacity 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 in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, would have welcomed an even more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was released this past year after nine months in jail for 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 newest rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who happen to be hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies needs to be paid similar to permanent staff (they commonly are paid far less). The regulations say there ought to be “equal pay money for equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is not to embolden workers, but to have their grievances from erupting into open protest which may turn against the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control many of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the new rules, fearing they will cause even higher labour costs. Wages already are rising fast, partly because of shortage of migrant labour. However the government is less inclined than it once was to heed such concerns. It has been raising minimum-wage levels, one of its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The brand new rules will help achieve this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters in the new rules dropped provisions which could have fined companies for resisting workers’ tries to bargain collectively and which will have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages as a result of management’s refusal to barter with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over half of a company’s workers to aid collective-bargaining before such action may start. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entrance to the level of spontaneously-formed categories of workers who 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 additionally undertaking greater risk, says Aaron Halegua of the latest York University. He believes workers will probably step-up pressure on the official unions to represent them better; should they fail, workers could activate the unions as well as factory bosses. The newest rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the security guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many individuals were afraid even going to mention the saying. “Now it is used constantly. To ensure that is a few progress.”