The fast emerging labour movement in China and its impact on the country's future

06 September 2013

On 3 September 2013, China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang gave a talk at the British Sociological Association’s Work, Employment and Society Conference at the University of Warwick.

The talk focused on the fast emerging labour movement in China and its impact on the country's future. It stressed that China’s workers should no longer be seen as mere victims of repression and exploitation but are now becoming labour activists who are more than capable of fighting back.

The labour movement in China has made great strides in the last few years but, Han stressed, there is still much to do.

The full text of Han Dongfang’s speech follows below.

The fast emerging labour movement in China and its impact on the country's future

Three years ago, on 31 May 2010, hundreds of workers went on strike at a Honda auto parts factory in Guangdong, southern China. Just a day later, this picture appeared on the internet. Look at this group of people on the left confronting the uniformed workers. Look at their yellow caps!

Guess who they are? They are not managers! They are not government officials! They are not plainclothes police officers!

They were sent by the local trade union to force the strikers back to work. So, they are trade union officials!

Yellow! Can anyone here think of a worse colour than yellow to represent the trade union?

The strikers were determined and united. They did not back down. In the end, it was the yellow-capped union that had to back down and issue a public apology. The workers stayed out on strike.

Eventually, the CEO of the Guangzhou Automobile Group, one of the plant’s investors, and several famous scholars stepped in and help settled a deal: a 35 percent pay increase.

Following this success on the part of workers, a wave of strikes spread in the auto industry, and also in other industries across China. The strikes are still on.

Looking back, we can say that the Honda strike set a new benchmark for labour activism in China. It forced employers, local governments and crucially the official trade union, to take workers’ grievances seriously.

The strike also made it very clear that China’s workers were no longer just passive victims of repression and exploitation. Rather, they were able to get organized and were determined to push for better pay, working conditions and welfare benefits.

The Honda strike was a ground-breaking event but it was not the end of the story. Indeed, three years later, the country’s labour movement has moved on to such an extent, that the Honda strike now looks a bit dated, especially in view of the fact that the final settlement was not negotiated directly by the workers themselves but by famous outsiders.

What has changed?

Looking at the collective actions of Chinese workers and the response from the government, the trade union and management, we can see that an important change has come about.

In February this year, 200 workers, the entire workforce at the American-owned International Paper factory in Guangzhou went on strike, against a management decision to cut bonuses.
Unfortunately, workers gained nothing with their three-day strike and five strike leaders were sacked.

In April, with the help of a labour rights law firm in Shenzhen, the five workers went to the labour arbitration court. Rather than simply accepting their fate and trying to get some compensation for termination of employment and then looking for another job, as might have been the case in the past, these five strike leaders demanded their jobs back. They wanted to go back not just to continue to work but also to continue to be workers’ representatives and to bargain with the management when called for.

The legal case is still going on.

With this case, of course, the result of the court verdict is important. But more important is the attitude of the workers. Faced with retaliation from management, they are no longer afraid! This means that these workers are ready and resolute in their defence of the right to keep their jobs, the right to negotiate collectively and, crucially, the right to strike!

In another case that erupted in May this year, more than 100 healthcare workers and security guards at a Guangzhou hospital staged a protest on the steps outside the hospital entrance. Many of them had been working in the hospital for more than ten years, some for 20 years, but none of them had ever had a formal contract stating who their actual employer was.

The fact was that the healthcare workers were paid by the patients who needed their services but the money went to the hospital. Every month the workers got their pay cheques from the hospital. The security guards were either hired directly by the hospital or by an outside contractor. But again, there was no labour contract for any of them.

As a result, for all those years they had worked, they did not get any social security contributions from their employer, simply because they never had an employer! Plus, they all had to work during weekends and holidays, but no one got the overtime payments they were legally entitled to!

From the very beginning of the protest, the workers elected their own representatives to push forward their demands. The hospital management however, simply ignored those elected representatives and refused to talk. Every day, the workers took turns to sit in front of the hospital with their banners. And every day there were labour groups, university students and local residents coming over and showing their solidarity and support.

Many people watching the protest and all that was going on were surprised that the local government stayed calm and did not force the workers to leave, as might have been the case in the past.

As this highly visible protest continued it got more and more media attention and public support and eventually the hospital decided to talk. As a compromise, the healthcare workers got a payoff of about £2,000 per person as compensation for employment termination. They then signed a labour contract with a health service company.

Were the workers happy with the deal? Of course not! Did they claim victory? No, of course not!

In my view, however, there were two major gains in this case: 1. All the healthcare workers got employment contracts. 2. With the rights awareness and fighting spirit created during the protest, these healthcare workers are now ready to bargain with their new employer, the healthcare service company, in the future too.

In other words, they have taken their fate into their own hands. And there is no doubt that they will demand bargaining with their employer in the future too to demand better pay and benefits.

However, there is a bitter side to this struggle. After the healthcare workers got their partial victory, they agreed to stop their protest. They had been out of work for more than three months without any income and had families to feed. This left their fellow colleagues, the security guards to fight on their own.

The security guards were not angry with their healthcare worker sisters and understood their decision. But soon after the healthcare workers got their deal, the security guards decided to move their action up to a more dramatic level. They made banners and climbed to the top of the hospital entrance. At this point, the police stepped in and arrested all 12 of them on suspicion of “assembling a crowd to disturb social order.”

It is possible that they could be tried and sentenced. With this in mind, we have now arranged for 12 lawyers to represent each of the detained workers. But even if some of these workers are sentenced, it will not be for a long period. And crucially, their zeal to fight for a better life will not have been defeated. On the contrary, their spirit will have been strengthened and their determination to bargain will have been enhanced.

There is clearly a stronger sense of class consciousness among China’s workers now, not only in individual workplaces but across factories. What is lacking, however, are the skills needed to turn that consciousness into effective action. From the Guangzhou hospital protest, we can see that the skills and strategies of the workers are found wanting, and that they have a lot to learn. But there is no doubt that over time, and through collective actions in the workplace, workers will learn how to create stronger solidarity, enhancing their organizational ability and eventually building strong trade unions.

I will return to this point later, but it is important to note here that many strikes and protests are getting greater public attention precisely because workers are now much more adept at using social media. Reports of most strikes and protests these days get on to social media almost as soon as they start. Not every worker has an iPhone but just about everyone does have a cheap smart phone with similar functions. Workers get photos and video of their action onto the Internet in no time.

Moreover, labour activists like myself, and our working partners in China, can retweet each other’s opinions, ideas and information about cases on Weibo and offer support and advice if necessary.

Weibo is a great invention. It is something between Facebook and Twitter, and it has had a tremendous impact on the workers’ movement. It has helped foster a greater sense of collective identity as more and more workers see posts from others all over China, and realize that they are all in the same boat.

In the past, workers went on strike in the hope that someone else, usually local government officials, would come in and help seal a deal for them, as was the case at Honda in 2010. What the workers needed to do was to create a big enough headache to get attention but not go so that it gets them into trouble.

Now it is different. Workers are more confident in both their collective identity and their own abilities. Therefore, they are more likely to attempt to resolve their grievances on their own.

People might be confused and ask: why does the Communist government tolerate this worker activism? Doesn’t the Communist Party see workers’ solidarity as the biggest threat to its own political power?

My answer is: not anymore!

After more than three decades of market economy reforms, different interest groups have emerged. Look at those strikes, the only reason for workers to participate in a strike is to defend their interests – to demand higher pay and better benefits. Is there a better reason than that for those workers to go on strike? Of course not!

To pose the question differently: Did the workers go on strike with the motivation of bringing down the Communist Party? No, not in the cases I have seen!

The workers strike because they want better pay and benefits!

Therefore, for the same reason, to safeguard their own interests, government officials would actually like to see workers and managements settle disputes through dialogue and negotiation. This helps reduce the number of strikes and street protests and maintains social and political stability. Imagine, by just doing nothing, by not arresting workers representatives, the government is already winning much greater goodwill from the workers in general, and therefore, gaining much stronger political legitimacy.

This explains too why the government controlled traditional media is now reporting on strikes and workers protests so openly. When the government took a step back from the centre of these disputes and did not take sides, it meant that these disputes were not seen as politically sensitive and thus safe to report. This, combined with the push from social media, has allowed Chinese newspapers, magazines and TV stations to report on workers’ protests and labour disputes in a comprehensive and often sympathetic manner.

There is, of course, an important role that trade unions should be playing in this process. While the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has remained largely passive throughout these developments, a few local-level unions have taken a more pro-worker stance in the last year or so, although usually only after they had been embarrassed into taking action. Such was the case with International Paper workers strike. When the five sacked worker leaders repeatedly called the union for support on Weibo, the Guangzhou municipal trade union ended up releasing a public statement in support of the case.

The official union is currently in an uncomfortable position, and is clumsily feeling around trying to work out what to do. But at least this is better than doing nothing.

At the moment the official trade union is limited to issuing statements of concern and support. The Guangdong provincial union did so in the International Paper case and the Guangzhou hospital healthcare workers case. In the northern province of Shaanxi, the provincial union supported workers at a state-owned oil firm in their dispute over unfair pay levels and over plans by the management to terminate their status as employees and reassign them as labour agency workers.

Sometimes the union does take a more active stance. Last year in Shenzhen, for instance, the municipal trade union showcased a democratic election for the trade union leadership at an electronics factory. This received a high media profile and was hailed as a great success. However, after the election, the newly elected factory union did not know how to represent the workers in the factory. As a result, less than a year after the election, the workers lost faith in the union chair they elected and demanded his ouster.

It is obvious that there are many things the official trade union needs to learn. The good news is that with the strong push from workers, the ACFTU is almost awake.

Taking a look at the big picture, we can see that the workers’ movement is good for China. It is good for society to develop a system for peaceful dispute resolution; it is good for the Communist Party to maintain political stability, and ultimately, it is good for the economy. By allowing and even encouraging workers to defend their rights and demand higher salaries, improved benefits and better working conditions, the consumers of the future will be created. Here we are talking about the massive consumption power of about 700 million working people!

When Henry Ford increased the wages of his employees, he did so because he wanted them to purchase his automobiles. China is at the point now where it can adopt the same principle, although on a more modest scale, improving pay, medical insurance and pension benefits, so that workers can spend more on goods and services to improve their lives and boost the domestic economy.

So, several important elements have changed in China in the past few years: Workers’ attitudes in the face of exploitation have changed. Social media has made the control of information flow much more difficult than before. The government has changed its attitude towards worker activism in order to reduce social and political instability and is gaining political legitimacy as a result. Greater domestic consumption is being generated. The traditional media has changed and is now reporting workers’ collective actions in an open and sympathetic manner. Prompted by workers initiatives, the official trade union has begun to wake up and is trying to readjust its role as a union.

What still needs to change?

Clearly the official trade union still has a lot to learn about what workers want, and Chinese workers have a lot to learn about how the union works. With this in mind, two weeks ago, we at China Labour Bulletin conducted a training session for about 40 workers and labour activists. This training was designed to stir the process of bringing workers and the union closer together, and getting workers to think of themselves as trade union members and even trade union officials of the future.

In order to make the whole three-day event transparent, we tweeted the proceedings live on Weibo.

Two days after our training, someone posted several pictures from the ACFTU’s most recent trade union training to compare the results. As you can see there are some obvious differences with the training we conducted: excitement versus sleepiness.

However, this general passivity and sleepiness has created a space for China’s non-governmental labour organizations to step into the void, and play a key role in bringing workers and the union closer together. In all the cases I have talked about, labour NGOs have got involved, helping workers get organized and helping steer them towards a settlement through collective bargaining with management.

It is clear that some major changes are needed within the ACFTU, and the number one priority is accepting and encouraging the participation of workers in the organization.

This can start at the factory level with workers joining the enterprise trade union and making it engage in collective bargaining on their behalf.

It seems that some trade union officials are listening to what we at China Labour Bulletin have to say. A journalist from China recently showed me an interview with the vice-chairman of the Shenzhen federation of trade unions. This interview contained at least 27 points that were lifted directly from our recent research report on the state of the workers’ movement in China.

So the union might be beginning to change. What about the employers?

Unfortunately, many company bosses are stubbornly refusing to change. Despite being forced into negotiations by striking workers, the general attitude of managements towards collective bargaining remains guarded. Even when managements agreed to sit down at the bargaining table and talk with workers during strikes, the results have mostly been just one-off settlements.

A couple of years ago, for example, employees at the Japanese-owned Citizen watch factory, who had long been unhappy at management’s refusal to include their 40-minute daily break in their normal work hours, went on strike. 1,000 workers, about the entire workforce in the factory, demanded payment of overtime dating back to 2005, i.e. for six years. Eventually, with the help of the same law-firm that helped the International Paper workers, democratically elected workers representatives held three days of talks with senior management. The workers accepted the management’s offer to pay 70 percent of overtime pay owed.

This was a win for the workers, a win for the company and a win for the local government. But again it was a one off deal. What happens when there is another dispute at the factory? Will there be another strike to start the whole process off again?

Instead of waiting for the next spontaneous strike, we hope the next step will be that employers participate more actively in the process to create a stable and long-term mechanism for workplace-based collective bargaining.

(Did I hear someone saying good luck with that?)

Despite the fact that employers are only willing to bargain when they absolutely have to, there can be no doubt that China’s workers are ready for this next stage. We have already seen in numerous strike actions across the country, and in our own collective bargaining training sessions, that this emerging working class has the desire, the will and the ability to engage in collective bargaining with managements.

At our recent trade union training, the session I mentioned before, a group of sanitation workers from Guangzhou, who had earlier been out on strike demanding higher pay, are now talking about standing for trade union election, so that they can better protect their co-workers’ interests over the long term, without having to go on strike again.

Once again: I cannot emphasize enough, that China’s workers should not be seen as victims of repression and exploitation anymore. They may have been victims in the past, but all the evidence shows that more and more have been transformed into workplace activists. Our hope and our expectation, is that these activists will eventually become diehard trade unionists. China’s workers want a proper trade union and they are demanding that the existing union do a better job in representing their interests.

In other words, workers want and are ready to reclaim the ownership of the union.

I repeat: workers in China are no longer victims but fighters. They are not only fighting back instinctively, they are now more organized and in the future will be more strategic in their approach. They are no longer satisfied with just fighting for a one-off deal, but are starting to fight for a long-term solution.

And that solution is an effective trade union.

The Chinese government is now taking a backseat in labour disputes. And the ACFTU is struggling to keep up with all these new developments.

For the ACFTU, two important tasks remain: 1; building a trade union education system to train workers’ representatives and turn them into union officials and 2; restructure the union from the organizational mirror of the government it currently is into a real industrial union and create a collective bargaining-oriented trade union federation.

I am sure that the workers’ movement in China will lead to the development of a strong trade union. Workers need a proper trade union to represent them and eventually they will get what they want.

The impact of the workers’ movement will not only be limited to workers’ rights. It will also affect the social, economic and political development of China and the rest of the world.

The rise of China’s trade union movement will have a profound impact on the re-emergence of the international labour movement.

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