Chinese workers may soon be allowed to elect their own trade union representatives – a dramatic shift in the country’s labor relations with potentially significant political implications.
New guidelines that could allow workers to choose their own representatives were “almost approved” and would be implemented “as soon as possible,” said a government official.
The new rules signal a shift in the balance of power from employers to workers following last year’s upsurge in labor militancy.
A series of suicides at Foxconn, a Taiwanese-owned electronics company, and unofficial strikes at Toyota and Honda car parts companies, highlighted discontent with the state-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions, which has consistently failed to articulate workers’ demands.
Workers’ bargaining leverage will only increase over coming years due to the dearth of young employees entering the labor market. Due to demographic pressures, China’s coastal industrial regions face a shortfall of some 10 million workers, forcing employers to invest more on improving productivity and working conditions.
The surging economy has further fueled labor militancy as workers feel secure enough to demand their share of the country’s economic miracle.
“You tend to see more labor unrest in economic boom times than economic downturns, which sounds strange,” said the bulletin’s Geoffrey Crothall. “The economy is booming again and the same workers are forced to work longer hours, but pay is the same. Obviously they are angry and frustrated.”
The labor unrest prompted the authorities in the highly-industrialized southern province of Guangdong to propose a new set of Democratic Management Rules of Enterprises in an effort to stem the wildcat strikes.
China’s communist authorities are evidently concerned that the ACFTU is losing its capacity to fulfill its traditional function, in line with communist dogma as a source of labor discipline and a transmission belt for the ruling party.
There’s a reason China’s system is described as Market-Leninism, writes Richard McGregor, as despite its vibrant capitalist economy, the regime has retained the characteristics of an orthodox Communist state, including government-run labor unions.
The new labor activism “is only one of the many signs of a broader political re-awakening in Chinese civil society,” says analyst Minxin Pei. But the ruling party is determined to halt the development of “independent centers of public morality, organizational networks and effective leadership.”
Hence the authorities’ efforts to curb unofficial strikes and generate some credibility for the ACFTU.
Labor unions played a vital – if not decisive – role in the Third Wave democratic transitions in countries as diverse as Poland and Chile, South Korea and South Africa. China’s independent workers’ advocates, the labor upsurge in Egypt and Tunisian unions’ role in the current civil society protests suggest that organized labor remains a key force for democratic reform.
For that reason, Beijing has long feared the rise of an autonomous labor movement, proscribing unofficial unions and detaining labor rights advocates.
But the prospect of a Chinese Solidarnosc is a distant one, says Dongfang, a member of the World Movement for Democracy steering committee. He favors a gradualist approach, pushing the boundaries of available political space to expand collective bargaining and develop workers’ awareness of their basic rights.
International labor groups like the Washington-based Solidarity Center have long worked with Chinese trade union and civil society partners to promote workers’ rights, reform the labor relations system and generate greater bargaining equality between workers and employers.