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 greater 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. Nevertheless in parts of the country, they also have begun to give state-controlled unions more ability to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to view a need to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations have 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. Recently, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specifically in privately run factories where they fear too little unions might encourage independent ones to grow. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations within the southern province of Guangdong, home to much of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many of its strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the correct of workers to take part in collective bargaining; that is, to barter their relation to employment through representatives who speak for many employees. The rules make use of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to usual term. But, in writing a minimum of, they provide the official unions greater capability to initiate negotiations with management rather than, as before, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, labor strike security companies in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, might have welcomed a more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was launched last year after nine months in jail for taking matters into his hands and leading a protest popular of higher wages. “China’s unions tend not to participate in the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The new rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who happen to be hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies should be paid the same as permanent staff (they commonly are paid much less). The regulations say there ought to be “equal buy equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim will not be to embolden workers, but to have 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 several of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the brand new rules, fearing they could cause even higher labour costs. Wages are actually rising fast, partly because of a shortage of migrant labour. Nevertheless the government is less inclined than it once was to heed such concerns. It has been raising minimum-wage levels, among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The brand new rules may help do this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters from the new rules dropped provisions which may have fined companies for resisting workers’ efforts to bargain collectively and which would have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages resulting from 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 can start. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entranceway to the type of spontaneously-formed categories of workers that have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions under the ACFTU.
But by using on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also taking up higher risk, says Aaron Halegua of the latest York University. He believes workers will likely step up pressure in the official unions to represent them better; if they fail, workers could turn on the unions and also 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 to mention the phrase. “Now it is used all the time. To ensure is a few progress.”