Willy Lam: Shaking Up China's Labor Movement

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Lam is a professor of China studies at Akita International University, Japan, and an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.]

It's not often that the Chinese Communist Party gives way, yet Beijing has made initial concessions in the face of the most serious labor unrest in recent memory. This isn't just unusual; it represents a real turning point in China's economic development as the country's 400 million workers gain a stronger voice. The question is how far the authorities will let this natural process run.

The "world's factory" has seen unrest spread along the southeastern coast to the heartland as well as northeastern provinces. Work stoppages and other industrial action have flared up in not only plants run by multinationals such as Taiwanese electronics maker Foxconn and Japanese automaker Honda but also in at least a few dozen domestically owned factories. The gravity of the situation is evidenced by the fact that top cadres, including President Hu Jintao, are personally handling the worsening domestic crisis....

These developments may nudge Beijing into being more sensitive about globally recognized labor rights. From the 1950s onwards, the Chinese government has only allowed workers to join branches of the party-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The group is despised by most workers because it is seen as representing the interests of the party and government, not the proletariat. Workers are not allowed to form private or free trade unions—not even ad hoc groups to press for higher wages and benefits. Collective bargaining is forbidden.

Yet there are indications that the ACFTU and the Party authorities behind it may be disposed toward making some concessions on the collective-bargaining front. In recent years, 23 provinces and cities have passed local legislation on mechanisms for "determining salaries through collective consultation." "Collective consultation," of course, is not collective bargaining: Rather, cadres from the ACFTU branch of a certain factory negotiate a "collective [salary] contract" with the bosses. There is minimal participation by ordinary workers....
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