China's labour movement poses dilemma for Communist Party
More than three decades after Beijing began allowing market reforms, the mainland's 168 million migrant workers are discovering their labour rights through social media. They are spearheading a labour movement that poses a growing problem for the Communist Party, wary of any grass-roots activism that can threaten its grip on power.
"The party has to think twice before it suppresses the labour movement because it still claims to be a party for the working class," said Wang Jiangsong, a Beijing-based scholar.
Workers are organising strikes and protests at a rate that has doubled each of the past four years to more than 1,300 last year, from 185 in 2011, said Hong Kong's China Labour Bulletin.
"What we are seeing is the forming of China's labour movement in a real sense," said Duan Yi, a leading labour rights lawyer.
That's prompted crackdowns by authorities, and factory bosses have fired strike organisers. Activists say authorities now send police to factories to restore order. Police have also detained leading activists and harassed organisations that help workers.
The labour law, which went into effect in 1995, stipulates the right to a decent wage, rest, no excessive overtime and the right of group negotiation.
But organisers can be arrested on charges such as disrupting traffic, business or social order.
"The working class has not yet fully woken up," said Qi Jianguang, 27, who was sacked from his job at a golfing equipment company in Shenzhen for leading a strike last summer. Qi said that a common appeal for equitable and dignified treatment was uniting the labouring classes.
Zhang Zhiru, who runs a group defending workers' rights, has been repeatedly harassed by police but remains optimistic.
"The social development and the increasing awareness of workers about their need to protect their rights will push the society forward," he said.