Chinese factories must give workers a voice in decisions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 December, 2011, 12:00am

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Over the past two months, a wave of factory strikes has swept across China, from the Pearl River Delta to the Yangtze River Delta. Last month, 7,000 workers went on strike at the Yucheng shoe factory in Dongguan that makes shoes for New Balance. And at both the Jing Mold electronics and Top Form lingerie factories, workers walked off the job to protest against their low salaries and opaque management.

Most recently, hundreds of workers at a Hi-P factory in Jinqiao, Shanghai, went on strike on November 30. They had been given an ultimatum: either relocate to Nanhui, a suburb in Shanghai, or resign from the factory without compensation. The workers chose a third option, blockading the factory gates with banners that read: 'We want truth. We want an explanation.' Each of these strikes has elicited some form of government intervention against the participants.

This wave of labour unrest in China has been receiving media exposure around the world. Many reports have correlated the strikes with the downturn in the global economy.

Yet, while it is true that a slowdown in demand coupled with a rise in the price of raw materials has led factories to lower their labour costs in order to stay in business, there is a more important reason for this unrest - the authoritative management style of most Chinese factories. This unrest has shown that it has lost its effectiveness against a better educated workforce.

In today's China, workers have no say regarding the operation of the factory or the treatment and benefits they receive. The workers are systematically alienated from their employers. The top-down approach of factory management as it downsizes, slashes bonuses and abruptly announces factory relocations is a more important cause of worker unhappiness than the changes by themselves.

As a result, workers have apparently decided that if factory management will not respect their rights under Chinese law, they will have to defend them themselves. They have done so by staging strikes and protests. However, when this happens, factories negotiate only with local government departments and government-affiliated unions - who usually side with the factories - to resolve the situation. Throughout the process, workers' opinions are completely ignored.

The workers will then inevitably reject the results of these 'negotiations', since they were never a part of them in the first place. In some instances, factories turn to the local government to force workers back onto the assembly line. In other cases, the factories threaten to fire workers who don't return.

Factory owners clearly think labour unrest can be resolved through coercion, but all it does is to give workers another reason to be angry with them. Instead, the corporations need to give their workers a voice in the decision-making process by allowing them to represent themselves in their factories.

During an inspection tour this month in Ningbo city, Zhejiang , Zhou Yongkang , a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, called for a 'complete mechanism for social management'. He spoke too of the government's need to focus on stability. But, in the name of stability, workers' interests are ignored so mass labour disputes can be ended as quickly as possible.

However, as we have seen, when the same factories play host to strike after strike, such 'stability' is only an illusion. Therefore, for the government to build a 'complete mechanism for social management' within a 'harmonious society', it must change its approach to labour disputes. It needs to establish a legal system to protect workers as they exercise their rights and provide them with a process to negotiate with their employers on an equal footing.

Both factory management and local governments need to be very careful. If they wait too long, they will be dealing with dragons.

Li Qiang is the founder and director of China Labour Watch