Developing a blueprint for collective bargaining in China

28 October 2013

Labour rights groups and worker activists have, for the first time, jointly devised and published a grassroots blueprint for collective bargaining in China.

The aim of the Code of Collective Bargaining (劳资集体谈判守则), issued on 11 October, is twofold: To give employers and employees a practical guide to collective bargaining, and provide a possible template for collective bargaining legislation in China in the future.

On the same day that the Code was published, the Guangdong People's Congress issued its revised Regulations on Collective Consultations and Collective Contracts (广东省企业集体协商和集体合同条例 [修订草案稿]); also designed to develop a mechanism for the peaceful resolution of labour disputes through collective negotiations.

The Guangdong government, like the province's workers and labour groups, clearly recognises the need to improve labour relations.  However, while the Regulations are an improvement on earlier drafts, they fail to take into account important new developments in collective bargaining over the last few years and still promote the largely discredited idea of collective consultations, in which stability and harmony are prioritized over worker engagement.

The Code, by contrast, is based entirely on the first-hand, practical experience of workers and labour organizations in conducting bargaining on the ground in Guangdong.  The 65-article Code acts as a step-by-step guide to initiating, preparing for, conducting and concluding collective bargaining in the workplace and supervising the implementation of the resulting collective agreement.

The Code is based on the fundamental principle of good faith bargaining and outlines the rights and obligations of both the employer and employee bargaining representatives. It seeks to create a bargaining process that is equal, open and fair, one that ensures the personal safety and integrity of all bargaining representatives, and offers practical options for the resolution of deadlock.

Unlike the Guangdong Regulations, the Code recognizes the fact that strike action is already commonplace and should be seen as an integral part of the overall collective bargaining process. The Code sets out the conditions under which workers should take strike action and stresses that strikes should only be used when all other means of breaking a deadlock have been exhausted.

The Code also recognizes that not all factories have a trade union, and as such it sets out a detailed procedure under which employees can inform the nearest district trade union of their actions and provide it with the opportunity to get involved in the bargaining process if necessary. It is also stresses that even in workplaces that do have a trade union; the employees themselves should be directly represented in the bargaining meetings.

CLB believes that the strength of the Code lies in the fact that it is rooted in the day-to-day reality of Chinese labour relations. The Guangdong Regulations by contrast seem to exist in a parallel universe where all labour laws and regulations are adhered to and government and trade union officials actively promote workers' interests.

CLB argues that instead of simply publishing draft regulations for a limited period of public comment, the Guangdong government should extend the consultation period for the Regulations for at least a year in order to gather sufficient practical experience and information for future legislation. The authorities should observe and study the actual practice of collective bargaining in the province, including strikes, the recall and re-election of enterprise trade union officials and the role of non-governmental organizations in assisting workers during the collective bargaining process.

In conclusion, CLB Director Han Dongfang stressed that, despite the limitations of the Regulations, the Guangdong government was at least now in step with workers and civil society in understanding the need for change:

We should recognise that workers, labour groups and the Guangdong government are all taking important steps towards the creation of a stable and effective collective bargaining system in China and we hope that further concrete steps can be taken in the future.

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