In early September, about 16,000 workers at two Chinese factories producing touch-screens for well-known brands such as Apple went on strike after management reneged on a promise to pay a US$100 holiday bonus.
The strikes were quickly resolved but still hit the headlines in the West because the bonus was supposed to include a box of moon cakes, a traditional gift during the Mid-Autumn Festival in China. The New York Post issued a dire warning to Apple fans, “No cake, no iPhone 6!”
The “moon cake strikes” were further proof, if any were needed, that China’s workers are not afraid to take a stand and defend their legal rights and interests when they are threatened, no matter how trivial the dispute might seem to be about.
At China Labour Bulletin, over the last six months, we have recorded on average around 100 strikes and worker protests every month, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Although protests by factory workers tend to catch most of the international headlines, strikes in the manufacturing industry only account for around 40 per cent of all the strikes in China. Transport workers, teachers, construction workers, coal miners and those in the retail and service industries, are all willing and able to take industrial action if needed.
More often than not, worker protests in China follow the pattern of the moon cake strikes; they erupt suddenly and end quickly after hasty negotiations or promises of compromise.
But while these actions can sometimes result in a better deal for the workers, they are never more than a quick fix. All too often another strike will break out six months or a year down the line because there is no mechanism in place that allows workers to engage in good faith bargaining with management and resolve the fundamental grievances that give rise to strikes in the first place.
The good news is that China’s workers and even some members of local government do recognise that this is not a healthy or sustainable situation, and they are looking for long-term solutions. More and more workers are now eschewing the quick fix and are instead demanding that management enter into a dialogue with them as equal partners.
This summer, 59 workers at a jewellery factory in the southern city of Foshan stayed out on strike for two months until management finally agreed to negotiate.
With the help of local labour rights groups, the workers elected representatives and drew up a concrete list of demands primarily related to social security payments and benefits. As a strategic move, they sought support and assistance from the local and provincial trade union federations. This move gave local unions the chance to either to act or not. The union did what it could, and in this case at least, it was enough to break the deadlock and management agreed to talk.
Not all the workers’ grievances were resolved at the first meeting but the workers chief negotiator Zhu Xinhua was confident that progress could be made in future negotiations: “We welcome the company’s change in attitude and are happy that the two parties can now have a healthy dialogue on an equal footing.”
In the neighbouring city of Guangzhou, a group of more than 200 sanitation workers went further: they appointed as consultants two respected labour activists from a local labour rights group who helped them negotiate a severance deal with their old boss and sign contracts with the new boss.
At the end of August, the sanitation workers went out on strike demanding that their employer, whose cleaning contract with the local government was about to end, pay them a decent severance package based on their years of service.
By using social media and the mainstream media, the sanitation workers garnered widespread support from students, citizen journalists and members of the public across the city and even as far away as Beijing.
The local government got involved and forced the employer to the negotiation table and a deal was signed. At the suggestion of the consultants, the workers asked the local trade union to attend, and for the first time that I can remember, the union not only attended, it actually chose to sit with and support the workers during the bargaining process.
Building a strong labour union
In response to this kind of pressure from workers and activists, China’s official trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) will sooner or later have to be more active and seek to establish a viable presence in the workplace.
Encouragingly, the head of Guangdong Provincial Trade Union Federation announced in August that it would do just that. Huang Yebin made a commitment that: “When workers in Guangdong file complaints at the union, we will assign special staff to every single case, deal with every single case, and solve every single case.” Huang also pledged to create democratic unions in every workplace in the province within the next five years.
Of course, saying is one thing, doing is quite another. The ACFTU has been making such statements for decades now but this time it is different because the workers are different.
China’s workers are more determined than ever to push for better pay and working conditions and will not back down in the face of pressure. It is important to note here that, in cases where local labour rights groups do get involved, they always urge the workers to get the union support in the bargaining process. And, so far, this strategy seems to have worked.
Looking ahead, this collective bargaining strategy will slowly but surely spread from factory to factory, region to region, help to create a more democratic workplace and eventually lay the groundwork for trade union reform.
The workplace in China is a microcosm of Chinese society; currently a very hierarchical, rigid and authoritarian structure in which those situated below are expected to be subservient to those above.
If, through collective bargaining and effective and determined trade union representation, the workplace in China becomes more democratic and the workers have a more powerful voice, the need to take stand against management will lessen.
Workers will begin to trust and participate in the structures and mechanisms that allow for the peaceful resolution of disputes instead of immediately adopting a confrontational approach, as was the case in the moon cake strikes.
Change maybe slow in coming, it maybe fragmented or convoluted but eventually China’s workers’ movement, together with the trade unions, will have a powerful impact, not just in the workplace but on Chinese society as a whole.
In the 19th century it was the trade union movement that laid down the groundwork for a democratic Europe and I am confident it can do the same for China in the 21st century.
I would like to think that within my lifetime China can begin to emulate Sweden; a social-democratic country in which the interests of individuals, different social groups, and society as a whole are protected and disputes and conflicts are fairly mitigated.
One condition is clear however. We need a strong trade union movement which serves Chinese workers.