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When workers’ actions speak louder than words

Workers at Shiroki, a Japanese auto parts maker in Guangdong, had long been unhappy at the company’s practice of forcing them to work an additional 20 minutes each day to make up for their rest period, which was not considered by the company to be work time.

On the surface, the 500-strong workforce seemed to have an advantage in pressing their demands in that they had a democratically elected trade union that had been in place since the company’s founding in 2003. However, all of the union’s discussions with management were framed within the officially sanctioned model of “collective consultations” (集体协商), which favoured conciliation over the use of collective action or protest to back up workers’ demands.

After a year of fruitless negotiation involving the enterprise union, management and the Guangzhou municipal trade union federation, in July last year, the enterprise union sought the help of the Shenzhen-based Laowei Law Firm, which has been at forefront of collective bargaining initiatives in China.

Over the next six months, Laowei provided legal advice on the trade union’s role in collective bargaining and helped train the trade union representatives in negotiation skills. Laowei’s director Duan Yi, meanwhile, kept in regular contact with officials from the district and municipal trade union federations and briefed them about the progress of negotiations at Shiroki.

Laowei’s aim was to transform the collective consultation process at Shiroki into proper collective bargaining (集体谈判). And a key component of collective bargaining is the ability to break a deadlock in negotiations by mobilizing the workforce in collective action.

And that is precisely what happened on 1 February this year when union members voted to no longer do the prescribed “20 minute overtime” that had been at the centre of the dispute.

The protest worked almost immediately. Within two hours the boss agreed to cancel the forced overtime and issued a public statement to that effect. The mere threat of collective action had achieved in a few hours what a year of collective consultations had failed to do.

In the past decade, as labour protests and strikes have become increasingly widespread in China, government officials have started to weigh the best way to mitigate labour conflicts. And although collective bargaining is at an embryonic stage in China, Duan Yi explains that Laowei hopes: “That by gradually showing officials our successful collective bargaining cases we can convince them that collective bargaining is indeed effective in protecting the interests of both workers and management.”

Nowadays, government and trade union officials do sometimes silently assent to the use collective action to force management to make compromises during bargaining. However, workers representatives still run the risk of reprisals from management and the authorities.

In April this year, for example, two workers representatives at the Hengbao jewellery factory in Guangdong were detained for three weeks after leading workers in protests to demand payment of their social security dues.

“How to protect workers’ representatives remains an acute issue if we want to make collective bargaining sustainable,” said a worker at the Panyu Migrant Worker Centre which also trains workers in collective bargaining skills.

But as Laowei’s Duan Yi pointed out, although workers representatives may currently face law suits or get fired or transferred from their position after leading collective protests; support from their coworkers and civil society organizations could ultimately bring about the legal protection needed for representatives engaged in collective bargaining.

“The essence of the law is fairness and justice. As long as workers’ demands are fair and justifiable, our legal system will gradually lean toward collective bargaining,” he said.