The contribution of labour NGOs to the development of collective labour relations in China

14 September 2018

In this English-language extract from CLB’s new report on the workers’ movement in China (中国工人运动观察报告2015-2017) we look at the tremendous contribution civil society labour organizations made to the development of labour relations in China prior to the crackdown in December 2015.

For the Chinese original please see page 24 of the report under the heading  劳工 NGO 对中国集体劳动关系建设的贡献. Please click on the links in the text for a full background report on each individual case mentioned.

Guangzhou University Town cleaners on strike in 2014

The contribution of labour NGOs to the development of collective labour relations in China

Since first getting involved in collective bargaining in 2011, non-governmental labour organizations (labour NGOs) have played a key role in guiding, pioneering and leading the development of collective labour relations in China.

1. Guiding collective protests towards the bargaining table

In the 2010 Nanhai Honda dispute, workers could not negotiate for themselves or directly participate in bargaining. The 2011 Citizen Watch case was settled after elected worker representatives delegated bargaining to a Shenzhen law firm, and in the University Town case, a collective agreement was reached through labour NGO-assisted bargaining. In the Lide Shoe Factory dispute, however, agreement was finally reached after the workers themselves bargained directly with management.

From these cases, we can see that, under the guidance of labour NGOs, the development of the workers’ movement within China is clearly moving away from chaotic protests towards orderly strike action and rational collective bargaining. In changing tracks in this way, workers in China are abandoning a scattershot “anything goes” approach for focused, self-driven protest. During this shift from collective protest to a collective-bargaining, labour NGOs played the following important roles.

Firstly, consolidating worker demands so as to lay the groundwork for worker solidarity and collective action

In all collective protests by workers, their demands boil down to the defence of certain highly specific interests, such as recovery of wage arrears, pay increases or economic compensation. However, although workers have to come together to fight for their rights and interests, their demands are not necessarily all the same. Differences include those of gender, seniority and job description. These differences directly influence the depth of worker solidarity and the duration of their protest. Therefore, it is necessary to transform a temporary, loose assembly of workers into a single unified collective. The first thing that is needed is the acceptance of a common set of demands, while at the same time taking account of workers’ differing priorities. Demands rooted in common interests are the wellspring of solidarity, while giving due consideration to the differences is an essential precondition for maintaining that solidarity. As the French sociologist David Émile Durkheim remarked, identity is a kind of “group awareness,” an internal force for cohesion for uniting different individuals within a particular community.

When a labour NGO initially gets involved in a dispute, it seeks first to help workers consolidate their disparate demands into a single package of focused demands that is acceptable to all. They then help organize those demands into a list, giving priority to the most important issues, that can be used as a basis for negotiation with management. At the same time, and in tandem with the collective bargaining process, it is necessary to provide guidance to worker representatives on the use of collective action, including strike action.

Secondly, transforming worker resentment into rational mobilization

The lack of a formal collective bargaining mechanism or an effective trade union in China means that worker grievances accumulate over a long period of time and can erupt in the form of sudden but largely uncoordinated collective action. If this is met by a tough and uncompromising response from the employer, the workers’ protest will most likely be supressed. Labour NGO’s understand how resentment in the workplace builds up and how best to channel or transform that resentment into rational collective action. This is done by training and advising workers and through the democratic election of worker representatives who can then bring unity and solidarity to a loosely aggregated group of workers with disparate demands.

It is important to emphasise that labour NGOs provide workers with the outlet to vent their grievances that was denied to them by their employer’s authoritarian and archaic management style, which only exacerbates tensions after disputes break out. The labour NGO provides a refuge for the workers, a place where they can openly discuss their grievances, vent their anger and talk about possible courses of action. This also mitigates the role of the local government which all too often sees any collective labour dispute as an example of social instability and as such devotes substantial resources towards repressing it. This then creates unnecessary tension and conflict between the government and the workers.

Labour NGOs help facilitate collective bargaining thereby obviating the need of the local authorities to send in the police to break up collective protests. Government officials also benefit in that this approach helps ensure long term stability in the workplace and removes the need for officials to get involved unless there is a real stalemate in negotiations. This also helps shift the attitude of government officials away from supporting or aiding management towards a more neutral position in collective labour disputes.

Thirdly, inspiring class consciousness among workers

By training workers and worker representatives in collective bargaining, labour NGOs have helped to inspire and cultivate class consciousness among workers. Workers begin to understand that even though different groups of employees have different specific demands, they have far more in common with each other than their employer, and that it is essential to unite as one in order to maximize their potential benefits. It this process, workers also understand they needed to consider the interests of the minority in order to achieve the greatest level of solidarity possible. So, while the success of specific cases is important, far more important is the gradual awakening of a sustained class consciousness among the workforce.


2. Taking a pioneering role in the transformation of China’s trade unions

In terms of trade union reform in China, two trends have emerged over the last decade or so. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has shown through its ceaseless sloganeering that it is increasingly subservient to the Chinese Communist Party, while at the same time, the speed with which enterprise unions are shifting their focus away from workers towards alignment with employers is increasing. In practice, higher-level union federations have already cast-off enterprise unions, and have abandoned their core duty of representing workers in collective bargaining at the enterprise level. Local federations of trade unions are moving further and further away from the day-to-day actuality of labour relations.

China’s workers have clearly expressed their dissatisfaction with the ACFTU by staging collective protests. In addition to giving up on enterprise unions during these protests, workers were not even willing to approach local-level unions to ask for help. However, labour NGOs understand that the Trade Union Law has very clear provisions on the duties of trade union representatives and their role in upholding workers’ rights and interests. Although unions in China are plagued by severe problems, these are certainly not unsolvable. The key thing is getting workers to realise that enterprise unions and union federations at all levels exist for the benefit of workers, and that workers themselves must mobilise and participate actively in union affairs. Only then can unions that have fallen under the sway of the bureaucrats be returned to the hands of the workers. In intervening in workers’ collective protests, labour NGOs have successfully showcased the roles that should be assumed by local-level trade unions, and have established a set of working models that can be replicated by unions at all levels and grafted onto existing structures.

In general terms, the most valuable contribution a labour NGO can make is in passing on its practical experience in intervening in a dispute and mobilising, organising and giving guidance to workers, winning workers’ trust and acceptance, and at the same time raising their class consciousness. This experience has already had a major impact on the work of the Guangdong Provincial Federation of Trade Unions. In October 2014, in the wake of numerous large-scale strikes in the province, the Guangdong union established an emergency response team for collective labour disputes, and demanded that after the outbreak of a collective labour dispute, “the emergency response unit should get to the location at the outset, and waste no time in organising the workers and setting up a platform for negotiation for both sides.” Provincial union chairman Huang Yebin also demanded that after the emergency response unit reached the scene of a strike, it must represent the employees, stand by them in speech and deed, and avoid aligning itself with the management and also acting only in the interest of local government or authority. It is clear that the Guangdong union’s demands echo the principles upheld by labour NGOs during their work.

It can be said that in intervening in a collective protest, a labour NGO is in fact assuming the role incumbent upon a trade union. But their goal is not one of “replacing the union,” as certain conspiracy theorists have suggested. Rather, it is to create a practical model or template for the work of trade unions, vividly illustrating what the union should and actually could do. Unfortunately, one year after the establishment of the emergency response team in Guangdong, one of the key creators of this union template, the Panyu Migrant Workers Centre, was crushed by the local government, in early December 2015.


3. Spearheading the creation of a mechanism for constructive collective labour relations in China

The fundamental cause of any labour dispute is the unequal division of profits and imbalances of power within the enterprise. In the face of the bosses’ financial resources and managerial powers, workers must rely on their collective (trade union) strength to ensure a reasonable and fair distribution of profit. Only with the union representing workers in collective bargaining with management is it possible to systematically guarantee workers’ interests. Regrettably, China has yet to develop an effective wage adjustment mechanism and the trade union has failed to transform itself into the guardian of worker interests. This makes a mockery of Marx’s argument that the role of the union is to protect the value of labour.

As a result, collective labour relations in China have degenerated into a vicious circle in which employers break the law and violate rights, worker dissatisfaction builds up, collective protests break out, the government mediates or applies pressure, and confrontation builds up once again. It can be said that the failure of ACFTU to play the role incumbent on it is the most important reason why it has proved impossible to establish a collective bargaining mechanism, labour relations in China have continued to deteriorate, and collective protests have continued to break out.

Given the long absence of trade unions from the scene, in recent years labour NGOs have consistently got involved in collective protests in a spirit of genuine class empathy, aiming to create a model for breaking this vicious circle and channelling labour relations into a more productive course by creating a platform for collective bargaining, in other words, a platform for resolving conflicts of interest.

As evidenced by the provisions of the 1994 Labour Law and 2008 Labour Contract Law, the Chinese government has always adhered to the principle that labour relations should be regulated, and disputes resolved, on an individual rather than collective basis. However, since the beginning of the 21st Century, the shift in China away from individual towards collective labour relations has clearly exposed the inadequacies of this principle. Firstly, prevailing labour law is seriously deficient with regard to core labour rights such as the right to organize and take collective action. The right to organize exists in name only, and the right to strike is absent. Secondly, the current labour dispute resolution mechanism is designed for induvial cases and cannot cope with collective disputes. Thirdly, the legal system relies on the exercise of government administrative power, but the facts on the ground already show that collective labour relations have long slipped out of official control, and, continue to slide further away.

However, the intervention of labour NGOs in collective labour disputes has to some extent addressed these deficiencies and provided the impetus for the establishment of a mechanism for regulating collective labour relations. There are four main areas in which we can draw valuable lessons from the experience of labour NGO’s that should be considered in the establishment of an effective regulatory mechanism for collective labour relations:

The protection of core labour rights

All of the cases in which labour NGOs have intervened in collective labour disputes have highlighted one key fact: namely that workers are already organising themselves and are incorporating their demands in support of their interests into their collective protests. The mere fact of such collective protests creates intense pressure on the government for the establishment of a legislative framework for collective labour relations that guarantees and protects core labour rights such as the right to organize and take collective action. The experience gained by labour NGOs over the last few years in organizing workers and the use of collective action to secure their demands, provides valuable material in this regard.

The practice of collective bargaining

The intervention of labour NGOs illustrated the different forms and practices of collective bargaining that already exist in China’s market economy. It has also highlighted the need for a legislative framework for collective bargaining in China. Labour NGOs have already worked out an effective set of rules and procedures in areas such as the election of bargaining representatives, the initiation of bargaining, bargaining procedures, and the norms of conduct for negotiations between labour and management, and these principles and procedures can provide an important contribution to the establishment of a legal framework for collective bargaining in China.

Protection of worker representatives

Because the principles of Chinese labour law have always focused on the regulation of labour relations on an individual basis, the protection of worker representatives has never been included in the legislative framework. Labour NGOs, on the other hand, have always been committed to the protection of worker representatives. They have carried out a huge amount of research into, and made many recommendations on the flaws and shortcomings in the law. The facts show that in order to normalise collective labour relations, the law must provide protection for democratically-elected worker representatives.

Procedures for the resolution of collective labour disputes

Among the cases that we have recorded, it is almost impossible to find an instance of a collective labour dispute being resolved through existing procedures. Clearly, the current dispute-resolution procedures are lacking when it comes to collective protests. However, labour NGOs have already developed a set of effective methods for resolving collective labour disputes such as prioritizing dialogue, encouraging management to give prompt responses to workers’ demands and urging the local government to mediate when an impasse is reached. More specifically, these methods include the election of worker representatives, methods of formulating bargaining proposals, procedures for the presentation of demands, rules for conduct of bargaining sessions, and the organisation and initiation of collective action. All of these practices should be included in any future legislative framework.

Despite their own limitations in terms of reach and resources, labour NGOs have always served the workers diligently and made a huge contribution to the workers’ movement in China. They were also, and perhaps because of their success during the period of this report, subject to intense government pressure and harassment. On 26 December, 2014, the director of the Panyu Workers Centre, Zeng Feiyang, was beaten up in his office by unknown assailants; in the first half of 2015, the Qingcao Labour Service Centre, Sunflower Women Workers Centre, Nanfeiyan Social Service Centre, Dongguan Candlelight and other labour NGOs were subjected to the full gamut of official interference and pressure including financial probes by government authorities, and orders to shut-down and re-register. On 13 April, 2015, Zeng Feiyang and his Panyu colleague Meng Han were summoned by the local police on suspicion of “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order.” On 3 December, 2015, several Panyu Workers Centre staff were detained by the police. On 29 September, 2016, Zeng Feiyang, Tang Huanxing and Zhu Xiaomei were given suspended jail sentences and then on 3 November, Meng Han was sentenced to one year and nine months’ imprisonment.

In response, China Labour Bulletin voiced its outrage at repression of labour NGOs, and paid warm tribute to those who had been unjustly sanctioned. The contribution made by labour NGOs to collective labour relations will enter the annals of the Chinese workers’ movement.

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