The Economist: Out brothers, out!

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

Jan 31st 2015

PANYU

AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere in search of cheaper workers, anxious and angry employees 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 across the country demanding better treatment.

The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. But in parts of the country, they have also begun to give state-controlled unions more power to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are beginning to see a need to placate workers, too.

Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations have 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 usually sides with management. In recent years, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, especially in privately run factories where they fear a lack of unions might encourage independent ones to grow. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.

New regulations in the southern province of Guangdong, home to much of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and many of its strikes (see map), might begin to change that. They codify the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that is, to negotiate their terms of employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The rules use the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational than the usual term. But, on paper at least, they give the official unions greater power 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, a hospital security-guard in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, would have welcomed a more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was released last year after nine months in jail for taking matters into his own hands and leading a protest in demand of higher wages. “China’s unions do not belong to the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The new rules would help satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies should be paid the same as permanent staff (they commonly are paid far less). The regulations say there should be “equal pay for equal work”.

Guangdong’s aim is not to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that might 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 would lead to even higher labour costs. Wages are already rising fast, partly because of a shortage of migrant labour. But 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 new rules could help achieve this too.

Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of the new rules dropped provisions which would have fined companies for resisting workers’ attempts to bargain collectively and which would have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages resulting from management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require more than half of a company’s workers to support collective-bargaining before such action can begin. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.

The regulations effectively shut the door to the kind of spontaneously-formed groups of workers that have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel their requests for consultation through unions under the ACFTU.

But by taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also taking on higher risk, says Aaron Halegua of New York University. He believes workers are likely to step up pressure on the official unions to represent them better; if they fail, workers could turn on the unions as well as factory bosses. The new rules stop far short of permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the security guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many people were afraid even to mention the word. “Now it is used all the time. So that is some progress.”

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