A new generation of workers is fuelling a wave of labor militancy in China that threatens the social compact underpinning one-party rule, a newly-published in-depth analysis reports.
China’s labor movement has been “galvanized and invigorated” by a “second generation” of over 200 million migrant workers – almost half of whom are under 30 years old – which is demanding better pay and conditions, and “refusing to tolerate the exploitation and discrimination their parents had to endure,” China Labour Bulletin reports.
“These young activists have not only won noticeable concessions from their employers, they have also forced the government and trade unions to reassess their labor and social policies,” according to Unity is Strength: The Workers’ Movement in China 2009-2011.
But the movement “remains fragmented and unstable because these young workers are denied the opportunity to put the experience and knowledge gained from organizing strikes and negotiating settlements with management to long-term use.”
The CLB analysis coincides with the release of a new government report predicting that more than 100 million rural migrants will move to China’s cities by 2020, threatening to overwhelm fragile social welfare and labor management systems.
Migrant workers are denied permanent residency rights and access to many public services. “Despite living in cities, migrant workers are still registered as rural residents,” AFP notes. “As such, they have little or no social security and are charged huge fees to send their children to public schools, forcing some to forgo education.”
In June, reports that police had beaten a street seller to death and abused his pregnant wife provoked major riots in the southern province of Guangdong. The violence alarmed the Communist authorities, apparently fearful of a political precedent: the brutal treatment of a stall holder in Tunisia sparked the Jasmine Revolution.
The riots confirmed the new generation’s refusal to accept the subordinate status of second-class citizens, analysts suggest.
“They want to build a life for themselves in the city,” said Geoffrey Crothall, the CLB report’s principal author. “And to do that they need money.”
“And that is why you’re seeing a lot more strikes and protests in China now because the demands of workers are getting higher and they’re more willing to stand up for themselves.”
While recent unofficial strikes have focused on economic grievances, workers also raised demands for the democratic rights of freedom of association and expression, explicitly criticizing the poor performance of the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions.
The CLB report assesses current trends in labor activism in the private sector and in state-owned enterprises (SOEs), concluding that:
Workers are becoming more proactive. They are taking the initiative and not waiting for the government or anyone else to improve their pay and working conditions.
Their ability to organize is improving. A growing sense of unity among factory workers, combined with the use of mobile phones and social networking tools, has made it easier for workers to initiate, organize and sustain protests.
Worker protests are becoming more successful. Recent protests have secured substantial pay increases, forced managements to abandon unpopular and exploitative work practices, and even stalled the proposed take-over and privatization of SOEs.
The protests have created an embryonic collective bargaining system in China. The challenge now is to develop that basic model into an effective and sustainable system of collective bargaining that benefits workers, improves overall labour relations and helps achieve the Chinese government’s goals of boosting domestic consumption and reducing social disparity.
The report argues that the workers’ movement is now a key driving force for social and economic justice in China and that it is clearly in the Chinese government’s interest to encourage and empower it further.
The Communist authorities’ strategy for controlling labor is preemptive and paternalist, says one analyst, “helping workers so as not to empower workers” by awarding better wages and conditions to ensure that “they won’t ask for independent unions.”
Yet the status quo may not be sustainable, says CLB’s Han Dongfang, a labor activist jailed after the Tiananmen Square massacre for organizing an independent trade union.
Unions may not be able to entirely escape party control, but they should at least be “independent from bosses,” says Han, editor of the Hong Kong-based Bulletin. “China’s workers want and need an alternative,” he argues.
The Communist authorities are concerned to contain labor militancy and pre-empt the emergence of genuinely independent unions which were key players in many Third Wave democratic transitions. Labor unions and grass-roots labor activists played a key mobilizing role during the recent revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, while last year’s outbreak of wildcat strikes in China’s auto industry and, more recently, in Shanghai, sparked vocal criticism of the party-controlled ACFTU.
An overtly politicized Solidarnosc-type labor union appears unlikely in China over the near future, but the ruling elite is clearly sensitive to organized labor’s potential leverage and political impact.