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Going it alone: a report on the state of the workers' movement in China

China’s workers are taking to the streets in ever increasing numbers. Angered by management abuses, and emboldened by the passage of new labour legislation, they are staging strikes, roadblocks and protests to demand the payment of wages in arrears, better working conditions and even the right to set up their own trade union branches.

In a new research report published 9 July, China Labour Bulletin looks at how the workers’ movement in China has developed over the last two years, how the government has responded to it, and why the official trade union has been unable or unwilling to play a positive role in it.

Going it Alone: The Workers’ Movement in China analyses 100 collective labour protests that took place in 2007 and 2008, and identifies three major trends:

  • Workers took matters into their own hands. Bypassing the largely ineffectual official trade union, they used public protest as a means of forcing local governments to intercede on their behalf. And, in many cases, workers were successful.
  • Strikes ignited other protests in the same region, industry or company subsidiaries. The wave of taxi strikes that swept the county at the end of 2008 exemplified both the spread of industry-wide protests and the willingness of local governments to negotiate with the workers.
  • Workers’ demands became broader and more sophisticated. Previously, disputes were mostly related to clear-cut violations of labour rights, such as the non-payment of wages, overtime and benefits, but in the last two years collective interest-based disputes came to the fore, with workers seeking higher wages and better working conditions, and protesting arbitrary changes in their employment status and pay scales. One of the major causes of discontent was, for example, attempts by managements to circumvent the new Labour Contract Law by forcing employees to relinquish long-term contracts and rejoin the company on short-term contracts or as temporary labour.

During this period of enhanced worker activism, however, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions was conspicuous by its absence from the scene. The ACFTU launched high-profile campaigns to unionise the Fortune 500 and to conclude collective labour contracts at all Walmart stores in China but this did little to help the workers concerned. Union membership increased to 212 million, and yet, the vast majority of workers still distrusted the management-controlled enterprise unions and felt alienated from the remote and bureaucratic local-level unions.

CLB asks whether China’s workers and trade union are destined to drift even further apart or is there some way they can overcome their mutual suspicion and mistrust and work together. It suggests that if the union can summon the political will to stand side-by-side with the workers in their disputes, there is hope for the future. But, if it continues on its current path it will become just another government department, largely irrelevant to the fundamental needs of the workers it is supposed to represent.

Going it Alone: The Workers’ Movement in China (2007-2008) is available as a 57-page PDF. Alternatively, listen to CLB’s latest podcast introducing the report.