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RIGHTS-CHINA: Doubts Simmer Around New Labour Rules

Michael Standaert

FOSHAN, China, Aug 24 2010 (IPS) - Faced with strikes in recent months, China’s southern Guangdong province is crafting revisions to labour regulations that would allow workers to negotiate pay increases and elect representatives to bargain on their behalf.

This is certainly good news, but workers, activists and experts are uncertain about their effectivity in promoting labour rights. They ask if these could end up being used by the government and the government-affiliated trade union to squash further attempts to hold strikes.

Deng Feiyu, a 23-year-old worker at the Japanese Honda plant in Foshan city that was at the centre of the latest wave of strikes, said he and his fellow workers have not heard of the proposed regulations. “No one in my department knows about this,” said Deng. “And we always share information.”

The latest draft of the regulations, which state media reports say could be released in September, say that if one- third of the workforce demands negotiations, the company has to oblige the request and its trade union must organise elections for workers’ delegates to engage in these talks.

Workers say the problems with China’s labour environment go far deeper to issues around basic labour rights and the independence of labour unions. These, they add, would affect how far the new rules can make a difference.

Although China now has tougher laws requiring companies to offer contracts to workers, many still do not get them and other basic requirements such back wages, or recently increased minimum wages.

Luo Fushang, a 36-year-old factory security guard in Dongguan who was let go from his job after trying to get a contract negotiated, said: “There are so many people that want my job, even without having a contract. There are many rules, but few of them have really been implemented.”

Labour activist Xiao Qingshan, well-known in the Dongguan area for wrapping himself in signs listing the laws that companies have broken when he protests on behalf of migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta region, doubts that the new rules can have much of an impact as long as basic labour laws are not followed.

“How can workers get higher wages when their back wages aren’t even paid?” he asked.

Liu Kaiming, director of the Shenzhen-based Institute of Contemporary Observation, says the regulations would not work as long as Chinese workers are bound to bargain through the government-affiliated All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) — the only legally allowed trade union in China — rather than form independent unions.

“The ACFTU is more concerned with social stability than with the concerns of the workers,” Liu said.

The problem revolves around a system where management has all the power — and the union is tied to the management, Liu points out. “Any worker that wants to work against that system and against the union will have problems,” he said.

“The labour union doesn’t have any use because the bosses pay the union,” Xiao said. “If the labour unions really did anything, I wouldn’t need to do what I do now.”

Still, some like Geoffrey Crothall, director of communications at the China Labour Bulletin, a labor- advocacy group in Hong Kong, point out that the new regulations at least allow workers to propose wage increases without first having to go through the government-affiliated union.

“Hopefully, more and more workers will gradually start to use this avenue,” Crothall said. “If it is effective, more will follow, but if the process blocked or hindered by management, then I think workers will continue to use strike action to pursue their claims.”

“If we just stop to work and try to persuade people to support a negotiation, it will become another strike,” Deng said, referring to the proposed requirement that companies start negotiations if a third of workers want such. “We just don’t have time. That’s why we need a labour union, a system to help us.”

Workers at the Honda plant in Foshan are to have a pilot vote this year to elect representatives to their union, which will still be managed by the local ACFTU office. Deng and other workers say no date for the vote has been given.

“Actually, that’s why we finally agreed to stop the strike,” said Deng, referring to Honda’s agreement to allow workers to elect union leaders. “I don’t think they dare postpone the election indefinitely.”

Previous union representatives at his Honda plant were appointed by the company, Deng said. “They were on the side of the company, and didn’t express our demands. This is why we need our own union to replace that useless one.”

Before the strike, the basic wage at the Honda plant was around 900 yuan (132 dollars) per month, but this has been raised to 1,290 yuan (190 dollars), Deng and other workers say. “We all graduated from technical school or college. Some of us even graduated from universities, but we get the same wages as other less-educated workers or even less than them,” Deng said. “That’s not fair.”

Liu says there will likely be more strikes, not less, because of the regulations. By his count there have been more than 500 strikes in the past three years, mostly focusing on wages. But the issues behind some, like the Honda strike in Foshan, have gone beyond wages and into the political realm as younger, more educated migrant workers like Deng demand more representation.

Most of the strikes have been in foreign companies because the workers there are “the elite of migrant workers,” said Liu. Xiao agreed, saying that they are better educated and more aware of their rights.

An early August survey by the Federation of Hong Kong Industries of its member companies in the Pearl River Delta area found that about 15 percent had faced strikes in the first six months of 2010.

It has since asked the Guangdong government to modify or delay implementation of the new labour rules due to the labour shortage and escalating wage costs, reported the newspaper ‘The Southern Metropolis Daily’. (With research and reporting contributed by Qu Yunxu.)

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