AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere in search of cheaper workers, anxious and angry personnel are becoming ever bolshier. According to 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 country wide demanding better treatment.
The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. Nevertheless in areas, 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 desire to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations must 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 usually sides with management. In recent times, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specially in privately run factories where they fear a lack 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, house to much 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 take part in collective bargaining; that is certainly, to negotiate their terms of employment through representatives who speak for all those employees. The guidelines use the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational compared to usual term. But, on paper no less than, they give the official 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, labor unrest security in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, could have welcomed a much more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was published last year after nine months in jail when planning on taking matters into his hands and leading a protest in demand of higher wages. “China’s unions do not participate in the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The newest 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 similar to permanent staff (they commonly are paid less). The regulations say there should be “equal buy equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim will not be 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 newest rules, fearing they will result in even higher labour costs. Wages already are rising fast, partly because of a shortage of migrant labour. However the government is less inclined than it once ended up being 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 new rules will help accomplish this too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters from the new rules dropped provisions which could have fined companies for resisting workers’ attempts to bargain collectively and which may have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages due to 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 start. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the entranceway to the sort of spontaneously-formed groups 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 through taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU can also be taking on higher risk, says Aaron Halegua of New York University. He believes workers will likely improve pressure around the official unions to represent them better; once they fail, workers could turn on the unions along with factory bosses. The brand new rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the safety guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, a lot of people were afraid even going to mention the word. “Now it is used at all times. So that is some progress.”