China: 'A decade of change: The workers’ movement in China 2000-2010'

CLB Collective Labour Incidents Map

China Labour Bulletin, May 18, 2012.

On 8 May, around 1000 shoe factory workers in Dongguan walked out in protest at management plans to cut their monthly bonus from the usual 500 yuan to just 100 yuan. Management refused to talk so one worker posted their grievances on his micro-blog.

China Labour Bulletin contacted the worker and posted an account of the strike on our microblog. This story was then retweeted more than 50 times within the hour and soon five reporters had gathered outside the factory gate demanding to know what was going on. They were refused entry but the very next day the management, under pressure from local government officials to make the story go away, agreed to increase the workers’ bonus to 300 yuan and the strikers returned to work.

While the international media in the last few months has been understandably focused on Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese media continues to cover the burgeoning workers’ movement in China. And this media attention itself is helping to drive the movement.

A glance at China Labour Bulletin’s new interactive strike map clearly shows how strikes have increased over the last six months, and how these disputes have expanded across different sectors and encompass a broadening range of issues. In March 2012, for example, a sudden increase in the price of fuel led to an upsurge in strikes by bus and taxi drivers. The following month, the manufacturing sector once again took centre stage as workers protested low pay and plans by their employer to relocate, merge or downsize.

The growing number of strikes has prompted a lively debate on the key issues currently plaguing labour relations in China. The journal Collective Bargaining Research for example focused on a particularly emblematic dispute at the Korean-owned LG factory in Nanjing. The large-scale strike illustrated all the problems inherent in the current ad hoc model for resolving labour disputes in China in which an isolated incident leads to employees walking out, management panicking and threatening to sack workers unless they return to work and local government and trade union officials rushing to the scene in an effort to “maintain stability”.

The writers pointed out that labour relations at the LG factory were generally quite good and that the losses incurred on all sides as a result of the strike, including the sacking of several dozen workers, could have been avoided if a formal system of collective bargaining had been in place.

To put these recent developments in perspective, CLB published in late March a research report that shows how demographic shifts combined with economic growth and social change over the last decade have given China’s workers more bargaining power, and how a younger, better educated, more aspirational workforce that is more aware of its legal rights has learnt to use that bargaining power to its advantage. Workers are not only more confident in their ability to organise strikes and protests, they are increasingly willing to sit down with their employer and negotiate a settlement on behalf of their co-workers. Indeed, in some factories, workers have already established an embryonic system of collective bargaining.

A Decade of Change: The Workers’ Movement in China 2000-2010 (downloadable PDF) is now available. Or read on screen below.

China: 'A decade of cha... by Terry Townsend, Editor

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 06/01/2012 - 22:46


El nuevo movimiento obrero y el surgimiento de la negociación colectiva

China Labour Bulletin -- El 8 de mayo, alrededor de 1.000 trabajadores del calzado en Dongguan (1) pararon y se manifestaron en protesta por los planes de la empresa para reducir su prima mensual de 500 a sólo 100 yuanes. La dirección se negó a dar explicaciones o a negociar y un trabajador relató lo que acontecía en su micro-blog.

China Labour Bulletin (CLB) se puso contacto con el trabajador y reprodujo en su microblog (2) su nota. A continuación, la historia fue retweeteada en una hora más de 50 veces y cinco periodistas se concentraron a las puertas de la fábrica exigiendo saber qué estaba pasando. Se les negó la entrada, pero al día siguiente la dirección de la fábrica, bajo la presión de funcionarios del gobierno local que querían acabar rápidamente con el asunto, acordó aumentar el bono de los trabajadores a 300 yuanes, y los huelguistas volvieron al trabajo.

Mientras que los medios de comunicación internacionales se ha centrado comprensiblemente en los últimos meses en Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai y Chen Guangcheng, los medios de comunicación chinos siguen dedicando una parte importante de su atención al cada vez más activo movimiento obrero. Y ello esta ayudando a impulsar y extender el movimiento.

Un vistazo al nuevo mapa interactivo de CLB (3) muestra claramente cómo se ha extendido el movimiento huelguístico en los últimos seis meses, llegando a distintos sectores y abarcando una gama cada vez más amplia de reivindicaciones. En marzo de 2012, por ejemplo, un aumento repentino del precio del combustible ha provocado un aumento del numero de huelgas de los conductores de autobús y taxi. En abril, el sector manufacturero, una vez más, volvió a ser el principal protagonista, y sus trabajadores protestaron por los bajos salarios y los planes de relocalización, fusión o restructuración de tamaño de las empresas.

El creciente número de huelgas ha provocado un animado debate sobre las cuestiones fundamentales que hoy afectan a las relaciones laborales en China. La revista Investigaciones sobre la Negociación Colectiva, por ejemplo, se centró en una disputa particularmente emblemática en la fábrica de propiedad coreana LG en Nanjing (4). Esta huelga a gran escala es una muestra de todos los problemas inherentes en el actual modelo de resolución de conflictos laborales en China: un incidente aislado provoca el paro de los trabajadores, la dirección de la empresa entra en pánico gestión y amenaza con despedir a los trabajadores a menos que se reincorporen a sus puestos de manera inmediata y el gobierno local y los dirigentes de los sindicatos oficiales aparecen a la carrera, en un esfuerzo por “mantener la estabilidad”.

Los autores del estudio señalan que las relaciones laborales en la fábrica de LG fueron hasta ese momento, en general, bastante buenas y que las pérdidas sufridas por todas las partes como consecuencia de la huelga, incluyendo el despido de varias decenas de trabajadores, se podría haber evitado si existiese un sistema formal de negociación colectiva en la empresa.

Para situar estos recientes acontecimientos en perspectiva, CLB publicó a finales de marzo un informe de investigación (5) que muestra cómo los cambios demográficos, junto con el crecimiento económico y los cambios sociales en la última década han proporcionado a los trabajadores de China más poder de negociación. Una fuerza de trabajo joven, mejor educada, y con mayores aspiraciones que es más consciente de sus derechos legales y esta aprendiendo a utilizar ese nuevo poder de negociación a su favor. Los trabajadores chinos no sólo tienen más confianza en su capacidad de organizar huelgas y protestas, sino que están dispuestos cada vez más a sentarse con la patronal y negociar un acuerdo colectivo en nombre de sus compañeros de trabajo. De hecho, en algunas fábricas, los trabajadores ya han establecido un sistema embrionario de negociación colectiva.


Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 03/29/2013 - 15:57


22 March, 2013

China's workers have demonstrated remarkable solidarity and organizational ability for several years now in strikes and protests across the country. They have demanded and in many cases obtained higher wages and better working conditions from their employer. Moreover, they have done this on their own and without the help of the trade union, which is usually seen as ineffectual or merely a tool of management.

Today however there is evidence that workers are no longer simply ignoring the union in their struggle but instead are demanding that it shows solidarity with them and does a much better job in protecting their rights and interests in the workplace. Over the past few months, for example, Chinese workers have demanded the ouster of a democratically-elected but under-performing trade union chairman, gone on strike in protest at a wage agreement negotiated by management and union, and demanded union assistance in their quest for equal pay for equal work at a state-owned enterprise in the revolutionary heartland of Yan'an.

The response of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions to these worker initiatives was generally guarded but not unsympathetic, suggesting that while the official union clearly has not yet got up to speed with the rest of the workers' movement in China, at least pressure from workers is now forcing the union to reassess its role and the way it interacts with the people it is supposed to represent.

In May last year, the employees at Japanese-owned Ohms Electronics in Shenzhen were given the chance to democratically elect their trade union chairman. They chose a senior manager named Zhao Shaobo, largely because they felt at the time that he was best placed to convey their concerns to the company. But just nine months later, on 28 February, after Zhao failed to effectively intervene in several contract disputes involving long-serving employees, workers posted a notice on the factory gate demanding he be removed and new elections held.

More than 100 employees signed the petition and it was duly taken to the district trade union office where officials promised to consider the request and come to a decision within one month as required by law. Meanwhile, the under fire Zhao Shaobo made a staunch public defence of his record as union chair, saying the accusations against him were unjust.

At the Nanhai Honda automotive plant, site of one of the most important and ground-breaking strikes in recent Chinese history, about 100 junior staff went out on strike again on 18 March in protest at a new pay deal agreed by management and the union that would have given them a mere 10.2 percent increase in salary, while senior workers would get 19.8 percent. The next day, management increased the offer for junior workers to 14.4 percent and the strikers returned to work.

Although some union officials at Nanhai Honda reportedly criticised the workers for going out on strike, one local union official did say that the work stoppage had actually advanced the negotiations between workers and management and was thus a useful adjunct to the collective wage consultation system already in place at the company.

Two months earlier, around 600 auxiliary workers at Yanlian Industrial, a state-owned oil company in Shaanxi, sent an open letter to the provincial trade union in Xi'an stating that they would go on strike from 17 to 21 January if management refused to discuss their demands for equal pay for equal work.

The provincial trade union federation had supported the workers in a dispute the previous month over management plans to reclassify auxiliary employees as agency workers, a move that would have eliminated the job security they enjoyed at the state-owned enterprise. This time however union officials were more circumspect in their support of the workers' demands for equal pay. The acting chairman of the enterprise union, for example, said: “Our trade union should represent workers' best interests. But although equal pay for equal work is a government policy, it is still difficult to implement.”

Throughout much of the reform era in China, the workers' movement and the trade union travelled separate paths, barely if ever coming into contact with each other. Perhaps now, with worker activism on the rise, there is a chance that those two paths will begin to converge.

But for that convergence to really bear fruit, both workers and the trade union need to develop a new set of practical skills. The trade union is taking small steps in the right direction but it still has much to learn about running an effective and genuinely representative workers' organization. But once the union begins to attain these skills, it will start to gain the trust of the workers, who then in turn will be more willing to learn new organising and bargaining skills themselves.

As such, at present, there is clearly both a need and an opportunity for the international labour movement to get involved in China. By exchanging information, offering practical help and skills training, international unions can help Chinese workers and union officials to fully appreciate how trade unions really work and understand how they can effectively work together in the future.