China’s labor rights movement gaining momentum



Chinese authorities recently detained seven labor activists in the southern province of Guangdong, alleging that they were “inciting workers to go on strike,” and “disturbing public order,” among other accusations, Deutsche Welle reports:

But rights groups have criticized the move as part of the authorities’ crackdown on the country’s growing labor activism. Labor disputes have been on the rise in China in recent years, as a slowing economy has led to an increase in workers’ layoffs.

The phenomenon is particularly evident in Guangdong, a traditional manufacturing centre. The province recorded a total of 412 strikes in 2015, the highest in the country, according to data compiled by Hong Kong-based advocacy group China Labor Bulletin (CLB). The statistics also show a remarkable increase in the total number of strikes across the country, growing from 1,379 incidents in 2014 to a total of 2,741 in 2015.

The Chinese government has also noted the upsurge in labor disputes, with the country’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security stating that there were 1.56 million registered cases in 2014, an increase of 4.1 percent compared to that of 2013.

“In five to 10 years, (Chinese) workers will be able to reclaim the union through collective bargaining, and that [would be] the biggest national union on earth with bargaining power,” says Han Dongfang, founder and director at China Labour Bulletin.

If Beijing seems overly sensitive on the labor issue, it isn’t without reason, say analysts:

On top of a slowing economy, as labor costs in China keep rising many factories are moving to cheaper locations, such as Vietnam. Meanwhile the number of protests and strikes in Guangdong doubled from 23 in July to 56 in November, according to the China Labour Bulletin. Overall, Guangdong has had nearly 400 strikes this year—the most across the country.

No independent unions

The rapid rise in the number of strikes and worker protests in the world’s second-biggest economy is a result of the country’s weakening growth, CLB spokesman Geoffrey Crothall told DW.

“The economic slowdown is causing factories, construction projects and coal mines to close, and workers are often owed several months wages when their employers go out of business,” Crothall said, adding that, in most cases, workers have no option but to take collective action to claim their rights.

They came for the feminists in the spring. In the summer, they came for the rights-defense lawyers. And on Dec. 3, the eve of China’s Constitution Day, Chinese authorities initiated a widespread crackdown on labor activists in the industrial powerhouse of Guangdong province, Cornell University’s Eli Friedman, New York University’s Aaron Halegua and Jerome A. Cohen, director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, write for The Washington Post:

Since they first appeared 20 years ago, China’s labor nongovernmental organizations have suffered regular rounds of repression and harassment, including tax audits, mafia violence and continual interrogation by security officials. But this most recent repression is more serious.

It seems that the Communist Party is intent on stamping out labor activism in civil society once and for all.

Despite the lack of strong and independent unions, China’s workers have become increasingly capable of organizing labor actions, New York University law professor Cynthia Estlund told DW.

To calm down strikes that involve significant numbers of workers, authorities usually respond with a combination of both repression and appeasement, said Estlund, who has a keen interest in labor relations in China, and is currently authoring a book about the issue.

Besides police intervention, the local ACFTU officials might attempt to negotiate a mutually amicable agreement between the factory management and the workers. But in some cases, striking workers not only look for higher wages and social security payments, but also demand the right to elect and control their own factory-level trade union.

“A single strike triggered by wage arrears may tap into discontent over low wages or other simmering issues, which may then generate demands for greater democracy in the enterprise trade unions,” noted Estlund.

Part of the problem is that the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions claims an absolute monopoly on representing and advocating for China’s workers, but in reality does little of either, say Friedman, Halegua and Cohen:

Unlike the labor NGOs, it seldom assists exploited workers or pushes employers to comply with the law. This stems largely from the Communist Party’s conception of the trade union as a “harmonizing” force between employers and workers. What’s more, employers typically exert undue control over unions at the company level. Workers therefore do not trust trade unions, creating a vacuum for someone to actually promote their interests — which labor NGOs began to fill.


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