Searching for the Union: The workers’ movement in China 2011-13

20 February 2014

China’s workers have emerged over the last few years as a strong, unified and increasingly active collective force. Workers have time and again demonstrated the will and the ability to stand up to abusive and arrogant managements and to demand better pay and working conditions.

However, workers are still hampered by the lack of an effective trade union that can maintain solidarity, bargain directly with managements and protect labour leaders from reprisals.  As a result, workers are turning to labour rights groups that can advise and support their collective actions while, at the same time, demanding more of the official trade union and putting pressure on it to change.

In China labour Bulletin’s new research report on the workers’ movement, published today, we examine this evolving relationship between the workers, the trade union and civil society and look at how the government is struggling to respond to rapid social and economic change.

CLB recorded 1,171 strikes and worker protests from mid-2011 until the end of 2013, about 40 percent of which were in manufacturing industries particularly hard hit by the global economic downturn and the decline in China’s economic growth during this period. Factory workers staged protests when they were cheated out of their wages and overtime payments, when their bonuses and benefits were cut back and when the boss refused to pay the social insurance premiums mandated by law. Workers also went out strike to demand higher pay, equal pay for equal work, and proper employment contracts.

Outside the factory: Transport workers staged strikes over high costs, cumbersome regulations and unfair competition; teachers protested at wage arrears, low pay and attempts by the government to introduce a performance-based salary system in schools, and sanitation workers, some of the poorest-paid in China, staged numerous strikes and protests in Guangzhou and eventually won a long-overdue raise.

Local governments often got dragged into these disputes and responded with a mixture of conciliation and coercion, putting pressure on both sides to reach a consensus speedily. The police intervened in about 20 percent of the protests recorded by CLB and occasionally conflicts erupted, leading to beatings and arrests.

Some local trade union federations did respond positively to workers’ demands for support but despite attempts by the new Communist Party leadership in Beijing to energise the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, it remained inert and stuck in the past. Nevertheless, China’s workers will continue to push for more effective trade union representation and greater workplace democracy. And in so doing, they will lay the groundwork for a more stable and sustainable economy in which ordinary workers can finally share in the benefits of the “economic miracle” they helped to create.

Searching for the Union: The workers’ movement in China 2011-13 is published today as a 50-page downloadable file.  This is CLB’s fifth sequential report on the workers’ movement dating back to the Year 2000. All reports are available on the Research Reports page of our website.

Back to Top

This website uses cookies that collect information about your computer.

Please see CLB's privacy policy to understand exactly what data is collected from our website visitors and newsletter subscribers, how it is used and how to contact us if you have any concerns over the use of your data.