Unity is Strength: The Workers’ Movement in China 2009-2011

11 October 2011

The workers’ movement in China has been galvanized and invigorated over the last three years by a new generation of migrant workers. They are demanding better pay and working conditions, and are refusing to tolerate the exploitation and discrimination their parents had to endure. These young activists have not only won noticeable concessions from their employers, they have also forced the government and trade unions to reassess their labour and social policies.

However the movement remains fragmented and unstable because these young workers are denied the opportunity to put the experience and knowledge gained from organizing strikes and negotiating settlements with management to long-term use.

China Labour Bulletin’s fourth in-depth report on the workers’ movement examines the current trends and developments in worker activism in China, both in the private sector and in state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and documents the responses of employers, government and trade unions. The report concludes that:

  • Workers are becoming more proactive. They are taking the initiative and not waiting for the government or anyone else to improve their pay and working conditions.
  • Their ability to organize is improving. A growing sense of unity among factory workers, combined with the use of mobile phones and social networking tools, has made it easier for workers to initiate, organize and sustain protests.
  • Worker protests are becoming more successful. Recent protests have secured substantial pay increases, forced managements to abandon unpopular and exploitative work practices, and even stalled the proposed take-over and privatization of SOEs.
  • The protests have created an embryonic collective bargaining system in China. The challenge now is to develop that basic model into an effective and sustainable system of collective bargaining that benefits workers, improves overall labour relations and helps achieve the Chinese government’s goals of boosting domestic consumption and reducing social disparity.

The report argues that the workers’ movement is now a key driving force for social and economic justice in China and that it is clearly in the Chinese government’s interest to encourage and empower it further.

Unity is Strength: The Workers’ Movement in China 2009-2011 is now available on our website as downloadable PDF and will soon be available in a printed bound edition.

CLB’s previous three reports on the workers’ movement can be found in the research report section of our website.

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