China's workers' movement continues to develop away from the international headlines

14 May 2012

Last week on 8 May, around 1,000 shoe factory workers in Dongguan walked out in protest at management plans to cut their monthly bonus from the usual 500 yuan to just 100 yuan. Management refused to talk so one worker posted their grievances on his micro-blog.

China Labour Bulletin contacted the worker and posted an account of the strike on our microblog. This story was then retweeted more than 50 times within the hour and soon five reporters had gathered outside the factory gate demanding to know what was going on. They were refused entry but the very next day the management, under pressure from local government officials to make the story go away, agreed to increase the workers' bonus to 300 yuan and the strikers returned to work.

While the international media in the last few months has been understandably focused on Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese media continues to cover the burgeoning workers' movement in China. And this media attention itself is helping to drive the movement.

A glance at China Labour Bulletin's new interactive strike map clearly shows how strikes have increased over the last six months, and how these disputes have expanded across different sectors and encompass a broadening range of issues. In March, for example, a sudden increase in the price of fuel led to an upsurge in strikes by bus and taxi drivers. The following month, the manufacturing sector once again took centre stage as workers protested low pay and plans by their employer to relocate, merge or downsize.

The growing number of strikes has prompted a lively debate on the key issues currently plaguing labour relations in China. The journal Collective Bargaining Research for example focused on a particularly emblematic dispute at the Korean-owned LG factory in Nanjing. The large-scale strike illustrated all the problems inherent in the current ad hoc model for resolving labour disputes in China in which an isolated incident leads to employees walking out, management panicking and threatening to sack workers unless they return to work and local government and trade union officials rushing to the scene in an effort to "maintain stability."

The writers pointed out that labour relations at the LG factory were generally quite good and that the losses incurred on all sides as a result of the strike, including the sacking of several dozen workers, could have been avoided if a formal system of collective bargaining had been in place.

To put these recent developments in perspective, CLB published in late March a research report that shows how demographic shifts combined with economic growth and social change over the last decade have given China's workers more bargaining power, and how a younger, better educated, more aspirational workforce that is more aware of its legal rights has learnt to use that bargaining power to its advantage. Workers are not only more confident in their ability to organize strikes and protests, they are increasingly willing to sit down with their employer and negotiate a settlement on behalf of their co-workers. Indeed, in some factories, workers have already established an embryonic system of collective bargaining.

A Decade of Change: The Workers' Movement in China 2000-2010 is now available as a downloadable PDF.

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