Chinese legislator calls for restoration of the right to strike

In a somewhat unexpected move, Guangzhou businessman and national legislator, Zeng Qinghong, has made a proposal to the National People’s Congress (NPC) to protect the right of Chinese workers to go on strike.

Zeng pointed out that, in a market economy, the right to strike should be a basic right of workers and a natural adjunct to the right to work. Moreover, he said, it was a widely-recognized civil right in many developed countries and was urgently needed in China in order to ensure social stability and the healthy development of labour relations and the legal system.

Zeng, who is the general manger of the Guangzhou Automobile Group, played an important role as a mediator in the Nanhai Honda strike in Foshan last summer, and is keenly aware of the impact of strikes on the automotive industry.

In his proposal to the NPC, tabled on 7 March, Zeng noted that in the two months from the onset of the Honda strike on 17 May to 16 July, there were more than 20 strikes in automotive components plants in the Pearl River Delta alone. And even after this year’s Lunar New Year holiday, he said, several new strikes had broken out.

He pointed out that workers’ demands were primarily related to pay and working conditions and as such could be resolved through negotiations. However, talks often took a long time to get started because workers were reluctant to elect representatives to negotiate with management, he said.

All this meant that strike action disrupted production for long periods of time causing serious economic losses. And this may well be Zeng’s motivation for proposing the legalization of the right to strike. By framing the right to strike in a legal context, employers and the government hope to constrain workers’ collective action, limit the number of wildcat strikes, and encourage workers to go back to the negotiating table.

At present, Zeng is a lone voice in China’s legislature and it is unlikely that his proposal will make any headway at the current session of the NPC. However, restoring the right to strike has been the subject of debate among scholars and policy advisors in China for many years now, and as Zeng noted, there is now an increasingly urgent need for China’s parliament to join that debate.

The right to strike was removed from the Chinese constitution in 1982 on the grounds that under a socialist system strikes were unnecessary. Since then, strikes have been neither legal nor illegal, and as Zeng and many others have suggested, given the growing number of strikes in China, this is an area of law that needs clarification.
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