For Chinese workers the right to strike is an academic issue

12 March 2013

The right to strike came up again during the annual parliamentary gathering in Beijing last week. Ge Jianxiong, head of Fudan University Library, suggested that the right to strike be restored to the Chinese constitution, telling the Financial Times that strikes were an effective way of defending workers’ rights, and should be legally protected.

Two years ago, Guangzhou businessman and national legislator, Zeng Qinghong, made a similar proposal to the National People’s Congress. Zeng was well known at the time for his mediating role in the 2010 Nanhai Honda strike and his proposal to legitimize the right to strike caused considerate debate among academics.

For most workers however it has remained an academic debate. There has not been a right to strike in China since it was removed from the constitution in 1982. But this has not prevented workers, especially young, well-educated workers who are well aware of their rights, from going out on strike. In mid-February, for example, when hundreds of workers at the American-owned International Paper factory in Panyu struck for a better annual bonus, they didn’t think about the legitimacy of the strike.

One worker explained how line managers had simply told workers not to report for duty that day but instead gather at a designated place to put pressure on the company to respond to their demands for a better bonus, which reportedly had been cut from 2,000 yuan to 750 yuan.

“We didn’t consider if our behaviour was legal or not,” said the worker over the phone. “We simply wanted to seek an explanation for why our annual bonus was cut this year.” He added that they were actually following the example of another factory in Guangzhou that had succeeded in getting a bonus increase after going out on strike at the end of December.

The worker said they had approached the trade union before going on strike but the union officials were largely unresponsive. “They did not take us seriously,” he said.

The majority of factory workers in China think the same way. They don’t seek the union’s consent to strike. Strikes are a spontaneous and often effective means of achieving workers’ demands. The downside is of course that they risk being fired or even detained.

The right to strike would in theory protect such workers but as Chang Kai, professor at Renmin University, has noted, the precondition for legislation on the right to strike should be that trade unions can vigorously represent workers. Most countries in which workers do have the right to strike also have unions that can and are willing to organize strikes. And in most cases, strikes normally occur after collective bargaining reaches a standstill or fails. Given the current inability of Chinese unions to represent workers or to hold real collective bargaining, legislation could actually deprive workers of ways to effectively bargain with their bosses by placing restrictions on the conditions for strike action.

It’s worth mentioning however that the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions is pushing union reform. The union chairman at the Japanese owned Ohms factory who was democratically elected last May is now facing workers’ demands to step down because of his failure to defend workers’ rights in recent labour disputes.

While workers still have much to learn on how to elect a union chairman who can really represent them, the voices calling for the re-election of the union chairman at least shows that the union reforms have succeeded in instilling the real role of the trade union into the workers’ mind set.

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