China: Just one step away from the right to strike

Workers in China do not have the constitutional right to strike. Yet, every day in the Pearl River Delta alone there is at least one major strike involving over a thousand employees and dozens of smaller strikes and stoppages.

This continuous wave of industrial action has forced the national and local governments in China to reassess the legal framework of labour relations and introduce new legislation that seeks to address workers’ needs and bring the law into line with social and economic reality.

On 5 June 2008, Chen Yu of the Shantou Federation of Trade Unions, wrote in the New Express (Xinkuaibao) that new draft regulations issued by the Shenzhen municipal government effectively brought the largely taboo subject of strike action within the scope of legal regulation. As a result, Chen argued, the legal right to strike was now “only one step away.”

The article is significant for its candid assessment of the current balance of power in labour relations, the ineffectiveness of the All China Federation of Trade Unions in organising workers (“an embarrassing joke”) and union’s inability to support strike action. The article demonstrates that, in some union branches at least, officials are taking their responsibilities towards workers seriously and are actively seeking ways to both empower employees and protect their legal rights.

China Labour Bulletin has translated the article below.

Shenzhen is One Step Away from the Right to Strike

The Shenzhen Municipal People’s Congress Standing Committee recently published the Draft Regulations on the Growth and Development of Harmonious Labour Relations in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. The Draft Regulationsare are of groundbreaking significance, both because it is reportedly China’s first legislative document on “harmonious labour relations,”and because the Standing Committee actively solicited public opinion before publishing it.

The most impressive aspect of the Draft Regulations is that it lays down more reasonable standards on the respective status and responsibilities of employees, employers and the government. It clearly asserts that to build harmonious labour relations, employers and workers have to engage in consultation on the basis of equality, abide by the law and exercise self-discipline, the government has to coordinate and supervise the process, ordinary citizens have to participate in it, and fairness and justice has to be maintained.

In view of the fact that in today’s China employers are beyond any doubt the strongest party in the labour relationship, the establishment of more harmonious labour relations must begin by adjusting the balance of power between employers and employees. An individual worker within a big company is as powerless as a tiny ant before a big tree. The only way for workers to get things moving and solve their problems is to team up and join forces.

China’s trade unions have the world’s best organizational framework and largest membership roster, but their real status is an embarrassing joke. Political meddling throughout the system has prevented genuine and effective union organizing. Therefore, when the government takes its responsibilities seriously, trade unions need to do so too.

After the Chinese Constitution was amended in 1982, the word “strike” (bagong) became taboo in Chinese legislation. It was replaced by references to “shutdowns” (tinggong) and “slowdowns” (daigong). Most lamentably, the (amended) Trade Union Law of 2001 stipulates: “When a work-stoppage or slow-down occurs in an enterprise or institution, the trade union shall … assist the enterprise or institution in its work so as to enable the normal production process to be resumed as quickly as possible” (Article 27). Rules of the game that deny workers the right to collective action effectively reduce them to collective begging.

The fact that trade unions are not only unable to stand clearly with workers but must also perform thankless tasks on behalf of employers manifestly shows that they remain in a subordinate position.

Although the Draft Regulations does not go so far as to call a strike a strike, and continues to refer to work stoppages, slowdowns and lockouts, it no longer insists that when such incidents occur, trade unions have to help enterprises resume production as quickly as possible. This fact in itself gives trade unions some room for manoeuvre. What makes the Draft Regulations even more groundbreaking is that it stipulates that when a major strike occurs, the government may issue an order prohibiting management and workers from taking any action for a period of 30 days that is liable to exacerbate the dispute. By clearly stipulating the rights and obligations of employers and workers, the Draft Regulations have, in fact, brought industrial strike action within the scope of legal regulation.

We are only a step away from the right to strike. This paper-thin barrier can be breached. These regulations fully embody Shenzhen’s pioneering spirit.

We can safely assume that if the Draft Regulations are approved, it will quickly prompt employers, workers and the government to assume their respective responsibilities to jointly build harmonious labour relations.

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