SASK: Collective bargaining key to taming China’s labour disputes

China Labour Bulletin appears in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

During the last decade China has been hit by a wave of wildcat workers strikes, the fundamental cause of which, according to Han Dongfang, is the lack of Chinese workers to engage in collective bargaining with their employers.

Linus Atarah
7 December 2009

Whatever the economic impact of the global financial crisis on China, labour rights activists say they will stay focused on achieving the right to collective bargaining for Chinese workers.

“If China is a dragon, then we are riding the dragon holding not the tail, to be swayed back here and there, but rather by the horn. We shall always remain focused on the issue of the right to collective bargaining as our prime goal”, declared Han Donfang director of China Labour Bulletin during a visit in Helsinki. Dongfang was in Finland as a guest of SASK.

Two years ago, the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s daily revealed that in the 19 years to 2005, the nation's arbitration network had handled 1.72 million labour disputes, involving 5.32 million workers, representing "a growth rate of 27.3 percent annually.

The situation has worsened within the last five years with the number of strikes continuously on the ascendancy.

“The Chinese government is promoting the building of a harmonious society but without harmonious labour relations how can you have a harmonious society?”, asked Dongfang.

Dongfang’s assertion of the primacy of collective bargaining in labour relations is based on practical experience from many years of fighting labour rights violations in Chinese law courts which he describes as “massive”.

A veteran of Tiananmen Square’s pro-democracy demonstration 20 years ago which led him to be banished from mainland china, Dongfang settled in Hong Kong which was handed back to China in 1997 and started China Labour Bulletin.

With a modest beginning as a radio station and a monthly bulletin reporting on workers’ conditions, China Labour Bulletin has risen to become an influential organisation involved in public interest labour rights litigation handling as many as 600 cases of workers’ rights violations year.

So being overwhelmed by the number of labour rights violation cases, China Labour Bulletin observed that it was impossible for a charity organisation to continue handling such cases without tackling the fundamental cause which is lack of collective bargaining rights by Chinese workers.

Building a new labour relations system based collective bargaining is a win-win situation for all parties involved. For the government, it will save a lot of resources being sunk into court battles and reduce the social tension, for the employers there will be less labour turnover which ultimately avoids the need to continuously hiring new skilled labour which is rather costly. And for the workers it will reduce the amount of disatisfaction.

Foreign multinational companies are falling over each other to invest in China primarily because of the low wages.

Many of these companies are hostile to the idea of collective bargaining, rather preferring to increase profits by exploiting the low wage system.

But Donfang points outs that it is the interests of foreign multinational to explore the possibilities of initiating collective bargaining in their companies if only to prevent “the game of the last decade or two which had the media, NGOs and consumer rights campaigners running after the companies checking whether they respected their workers’ rights”.

Foreign multinational companies are afraid that establishing collective bargaining would increase their costs. But Donfang dismisses such fears because according to him, the costs would not be too high.

“Chinese workers are not going to demand the wage levels of Finland, for instance, if they are allowed to collectively bargain for their wages”, he said.

Trade Union activities in China are very restricted because workers are not allowed to form or belong to independent trade de unions. The only official trade union allowed is the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACTFU) which has been in existence since 1950.

According to Donfang, it is not necessary to change the existing trade union structures in order to have collective bargaining because it would consume fewer resources since they already have a system in place.

However, the ACFTU should be the one pushing for collective bargaining. “If you are the only one trade union, then you do the only one’s job by doing bargaining on behalf of the workers”, he said.

But the decision should come from the official union as to when and how they are going to do it.

“The question ‘when?’ is a big question mark and ‘how?’ is not even a question because they don’t know how”, he said.

However, Dongfang he says remains positive that collective bargaining would eventually take root in China in the future not because he has faith in the ACFTU finally coming round to it but because of events in the five years which have seen a continuous rise in the workers’ strikes mainly from the fact that violations of workers’ rights still take place ceaselessly.

Also within the same time period the Chinese government with the efforts of the ACFTU has made efforts towards labour law reforms which include an element of public consultation for a short period and that has raised awareness of rights among the workers, but which ironically has led to more strikes.

Given these circumstances Donfang says the ACFTU would be compelled at some point to intervene too starting initiating collective bargaining or else the massive organisation with 100 000-strong staff would cease to have a reason to exist.
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