MAC: Mines and Communities

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

Published by MAC on 2011-10-18
Source: China Labour Bulletin

The unique Hong Kong-based research group, China Labour Bulletin (CLB), has just published its fourth research report on the challenges confronted by the world's largest workforce.

It paints a picture of dramatic interventions by workers striving to assert basic rights in the face of unsympathetic or hostile official union bodies, corrupt local and regional government and often brutal employers; as well as forced lay-offs caused by the privatisation of state owned enterprises (SOEs).

The report includes brief case studies of industrial actions undertaken at two steel and iron plants - and which met with some success).

It also acknowledges the bravery of some individuals attempting to expose an unacceptable situation. (Particularly striking is an action by Zhang Haichao in Henan province: he undertook open-heart surgery in 2009 to publicly expose the horrifying impacts of pneumoconiosis contracted in the construction industry).

As the CLB points out, China's labour movement as a whole has achieved some successes during the past three years, though it "remains fragmented and unstable".

The Bulletin estimates that, of China's roughly 90,000 (sic) "mass incidents", largely triggered by specific right violations in 2009, no fewer than a third (30,000) were labour-related. Moreover, there is "no reason to suspect the number of strikes is decreasing".

Nonetheless, it concludes that workers movements are "now a key driving force for social and economic justice in China", while "it is clearly in the Chinese government's interest to encourage and empower it further".

For details of CLB's July 2009 China Labour report, see: New report exposes China's Labour attrition

For a similar 2006 summary, see: China update

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

China Labour Bulletinc

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.

Today, China Labour Bulletin publishes its fourth in-depth research report on the workers' movement in China, covering the years 2009 to 2011. It 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 three previous reports on the workers' movement can be found in the research report section of our website.

For more information about these reports and the work of China Labour Bulletin, please contact:
Geoffrey Crothall
Director of Communications
China Labour Bulletin
Office Telephone: 852 2780 2187
Mobile: 852 6402 1530

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