Workers seek voice in collective bargaining
Denise Tsang in Shenzhen
Xu Yaqing, a migrant worker at a garment factory in Shenzhen, would ask her boss to offer entertainment, leisure trips, parties, a pay rise every year and more annual leave - if she was able to speak up.
However, the 21-year-old Wuhan native left her wish-list under wraps after factory owners' outcries prompted the Guangdong provincial government to put on hold indefinitely last month a proposal empowering workers to collectively negotiate and fix wages and benefits with bosses.
Disappointed, Xu lost hope of having her voice heard in the factory, where she spends eight hours a day, six days a week sewing down jackets.
'I need more incentives and motivation,' she said, while adding air-conditioning to the wish-list as the 28 degrees Celsius temperature prompted her to pause from her sewing. 'Many smaller factories do not follow the labour contract law and ask labourers to work overtime without proper compensation, not to mention the collective wage negotiation plan.'
The labour contract law, which was introduced in January 2008, aims at better protecting workers' welfare by limiting work hours and shift hours, and putting their benefits in black and white.
The collective wage negotiation proposal is seen as a further step in lifting the bargaining power of more than 100 million migrant workers across the mainland, but it hit a snag after Hong Kong's top four trade bodies and almost 60 smaller business associations unanimously threw it out last month.
To avoid a repeat of the tidal wave of strikes in summer which plagued foreign factories such as Taiwanese-owned gadget maker Foxconn and Japanese-owned carmaker Honda, the central government resurrected the proposal in July, revealed its details in August and scheduled it for legislating during the provincial congress meeting at the end of last month.
However, it was not submitted during the meeting.
This reporter interviewed seven migrant workers including Xu, but none of them had ever heard of the proposals, which advocated equal distribution of wages and provided a mechanism for workers and bosses to negotiate pay, bonuses, work hours, paid leave, insurance and work safety standards.
The latest draft rules stipulate that one in every three board members should be a worker representative and they were to have access to corporate information except anything deemed to be technologically sensitive or a state secret or impinging on personal privacy. Therefore, workers will potentially be entitled to sensitive information such as the books and accounts of a factory.
Li Neng, a 20-year-old tailor trainee who left for Guangdong two years ago, welcomes the plan.
'It is a good idea,' he said. 'I want to be a worker representative and fight for pay rises every year.'
Li, who had his monthly pay raised by 20 per cent to 2,200 yuan (HK$2,570) early this year, wants to have a bigger salary every year as he wants to be a boss eventually.
He wants to own a shop at his Hubei home, even though he has no idea what kind of shop it will be. 'Who wants to be a migrant worker for the rest of his life?' Li said.
Despite its 1.4 billion population, China is short of labourers. Soaring wealth, rising living standards and more jobs have left too many factory owners chasing a shrinking pool of labourers at the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta - the country's developed production regions.
Lee Yin-lung, a Hong Kong entrepreneur whose factory at Shenzhen supplies high-end down jackets to Europe and the United States, said it was an employee's market.
'In the old days, the first question a boss asked a worker who wanted to take a day of sick leave was 'So you have a doctor's recommendation? If not, please return to your position',' Lee said. 'Now, the question is, 'How are you feeling? If you do not feel well, please go home and take a rest'.'
To retain workers, he raised salaries to above market average and offered cash subsidies on meals and accommodation.
Xu was already offered an above-market salary when she joined the factory three months ago after it raised the monthly salary by 20 per cent to 2,800 yuan, compared with Shenzhen's minimum wage of 1,100 yuan and the industry average of 2,500 yuan.
'The labour-intensive garment and textile industry is hit hard by a lack of workers,' Lee said. 'The younger generation does not want to work in factories and learn skills.'
The collective wage negotiation plan has become a subject of clashes between labour rights groups and business organisations.
Last week, an alliance of at least three non-government organisations such as the Labour Action China and the Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour protested at the Federation of Hong Kong Industries Association headquarters in Sham Shui Po and the Chinese Manufacturers' Association office in Central for rejecting the draft rules. The China Labour Bulletin (CLB) called for public debate with trade organisations last month, but in vain.
Han Dongfang, a democracy advocate and the head of CLB, warned that delaying the implementation of the plan will do nothing to ease industrial tensions in Guangdong. There are about 55,000 Hong Kong factory owners operating at the Pearl River Delta, employing collectively 10 million migrant workers.
In its latest research, CLB urged local governments to free manufacturers from economic shackles by lowering taxes and arbitrary fees so that they can retain a bigger profit and be in a better position to meet workers' needs. It says employers generally operate with paper-thin margins.
Federation of Hong Kong Industries chairman Cliff Sun Kai-lit argued that the draft rules are counter-productive and defies the existing practice - the harder they work, the more they earn.
Factory owners warn of an exodus of cash if the proposal goes ahead.
Eddie Leung Wai-ho, the honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Young Industrialists Council, does not see the prospect of harmonious talks nor fruitful conclusion in salary negotiation as 'workers always want to get paid more and bosses always want to pay less'.
Shenzhen factory collective wage negotiation proposal
?EWorkers and employers to have at least five representatives each, up to a maximum of 15.
?E Issues to be negotiated include: wages, work safety, hours, paid leave, training, benefits and labour disputes.
?E Workers representatives to be allowed access to all corporate information apart from that deemed state secrets, or involving sensitive technology or personal privacy.
?E Worker representatives to be allowed to seek a meeting if more than one-fifth of the workforce calls for it.
?E Workers banned from striking during negotiations.
SOURCE: SHENZHEN MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT