Thursday, February 27, 2014

China's Rising Workers

China’s workers have emerged over the last few years as a strong, unified and increasingly active collective force. Workers have time and again demonstrated the will and the ability to stand up to abusive and arrogant managements and to demand better pay and working conditions. However, workers are still hampered by the lack of an effective trade union that can maintain solidarity, bargain directly with managements and protect labour leaders from reprisals.  As a result, workers are turning to labour rights groups that can advise and support their collective actions while, at the same time, demanding more of the official trade union and putting pressure on it to change.

 China Labour Bulletin recorded 1,171 strikes and worker protests from mid-2011 until the end of 2013. The police intervened in about 20 percent of the protests recorded by CLB and occasionally conflicts erupted, leading to beatings and arrests.  About 40 percent of the industril action were in manufacturing industries particularly hard hit by the global economic downturn and the decline in China’s economic growth during this period. Factory workers staged protests when they were cheated out of their wages and overtime payments, when their bonuses and benefits were cut back and when the boss refused to pay the social insurance premiums mandated by law. Workers also went out strike to demand higher pay, equal pay for equal work, and proper employment contracts.

Transport workers staged strikes over high costs, cumbersome regulations and unfair competition; teachers protested at wage arrears, low pay and attempts by the government to introduce a performance-based salary system in schools, and sanitation workers, some of the poorest-paid in China, staged numerous strikes and protests in Guangzhou and eventually won a long-overdue raise.

Despite China's seemingly miraculous economic boom, in many ways, its emergent labor struggles are strikingly similar to those experienced by workers in more developed economies: weak-to-zero collective bargaining rights, a lack of social and health protections, the poverty and instability facing interregional migrant labor, global economic volatility and consequent job insecurity. And of course, that’s all in a fractious atmosphere of breakneck national growth rates, greater economic ambitions among the working class and soaring inequality. The rising militancy (and even class consciousness) across the industrial workforce is being facilitated by the expansion of digital communications networks—as more workers begin to enjoy the tech gadgets they’ve been producing for rich countries all these years

Without a free media or independent unions, it’s hard to tell how unified China’s workers are or can be, but CLB describes bread-and-butter struggles at various multinational factories, as well as public sector workforces such as teachers battling wage arrears and sanitation workers denied social insurance.  Workers are lacking direct channels for airing grievances. Although China is technically home to the world’s largest union organization, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the many spontaneous strikes and protests of recent years reveal that the state-run labor bureaucracy, while not completely an arm of the government, has largely been ineffective in responding to workers' intensifying needs and demands.
CLB found that in their pursuit of “better pay and conditions,” workers are bypassing traditional trade union organizing entirely in favor of organizing actions themselves. One worker told the local press, “We don’t want a union chairman who is partial towards the employer. We want to elect a chairman who can speak up for us.”

The report notes, “One of the most intractable obstacles to the development of the workers’ movement in China thus far has been the inability of workers to maintain the solidarity and momentum created by isolated victories in the workplace.” Ultimately, the reclaiming of the union from state and corporate power depends on how workers’ raised consciousness evolves into more systemic mass action and internal union reforms. But it looks like China’s capitalist miracle has opened the potential for its working masses to create the century’s labor miracle as well.

Taken from here

A 50-page report by the CLB is available for download here

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