China: Guangdong missed opportunity to introduce genuine workplace collective bargaining and should do so in upcoming re-evaluation, labour rights NGO says

Author: China Labour Bulletin (Hong Kong), Published on: 16 October 2019

“How Guangdong missed the chance for genuine workplace collective bargaining”

During the early 2010s, there were hopes that the Guangdong provincial government would introduce legislation that provided employees and employers with a framework to resolve labour disputes through genuine collective bargaining and thereby reduce the rapidly growing number of strikes and protests in factories across the province.

However, the business lobby waged a vociferous campaign against the draft legislation and by the time Guangdong finally introduced its Regulations on Collective Contracts in Enterprises… in September 2014, the law was so watered-down as to be effectively useless.

Denied the opportunity to engage in peaceful collective bargaining, workers had no option but to continue to take collective action. In the five years since the regulations went into effect, there have been 1,279 collective worker protests in Guangdong alone… Crucially, of these 1,279 incidents, only 37 involved some form of negotiations between labour and management, while local government officials mediated in 84 cases. By contrast, police intervened in 416 cases and made arrests in 97 of them.

… around half (639) of all protests in Guangdong were in the manufacturing sector, the key sector that the Collective Contract Regulations were supposed to focus on.

The regulations were designed to allow factory workers to negotiate pay increases with management however pay increases were not the main concern of Guangdong factory workers in this period. The main issue for factory workers was simply getting paid or being laid off without any pay or compensation as factory owners continued to head for the exits…

During this ongoing labour unrest, the Guangdong Provincial Federation of Trade Unions claims it had been busy organizing workers and negotiating collective contracts with employers…

However, CLB’s research suggests that the union is still far removed the day to day struggles of workers in Guangdong…

Moreover, the other local officials interviewed in Guangdong conceded that most of the enterprise trade unions that had been established were under the control of management and that workers have no real input in negotiations over wages and working conditions…

The Guangdong Collective Contracts Regulations did in theory empower enterprise trade unions to collectively bargain with management but because most enterprise unions were under the sway of management and had no legitimacy with the workforce, they could not be effective bargaining representatives. The only real collective bargaining to occur during this time was initiated by the workers themselves, usually following wildcat strikes that forced the employer to the bargaining table… Civil society groups were involved in well over one hundred bargaining cases…

… the provincial and local trade unions are still scrambling to make a real and beneficial impact on labour relations… The union is trying to resolve labour disputes through established legal channels such as labour arbitration… A lot of these cases are dealt with individually rather than collectively, a process that takes a lot of time and does not really address the fundamental causes of the dispute.

While legal assistance can be helpful in addressing violations of labour rights, the advantage of collective bargaining is that it creates a mechanism whereby workers can ensure their rights and interests are protected in a mutually acceptable and legally binding collective contract. This also importantly helps to prevent employers from taking unilateral action that violates labour rights in the first place.

… there is still a chance that during the ongoing process of trade union reform, the Guangdong union will start to re-evaluate its role and begin the process of transforming itself into a genuine advocate for and a representative of labour.

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