Reflections on the recent trends in China’s labour movement
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Suki CHUNG, Labour Action China

China’s economic development in the last two decades marked a unique path of capitalist development under the unique historical and politico-economic conditions of the 21st century. Various concerns have been raised about its development, its sustainability and the impact of its emerging power on Chinese society and global politics and economics. Above all, the major concern is the impact of such "development with Chinese Characteristics" on the Chinese people, on the Chinese working class. So far, there is no consensus on how far China can sustain in its way of capitalist development within the existing one-party ruling structure. Questions remain as to whether this development strategy can offer a sustainable, decent and secure livelihood for the people, and whether it is going to build a democratic society with distributive justice.
From 1993 to 2006, the number of strikes by workers and incidences of peasant unrest increased from 8,700 to more than 90,000. Some scholars even estimated that the number of mass incidents has accumulated to more than 180,000 in 2010.[1] The growing mass discontent exposed the anti-people nature of China’s economic-oriented and undemocratic development strategies. It is noteworthy that President Hu Jintao also accepted that the country was facing a period of magnified social conflicts.[2] Mass incidents as seen in strikes, demonstrations and riots increased from more than 60,000 to more than 80,000 from 2006 to 2008. In 2009 alone, there were 90,000 mass incidents of social unrest in China. The trend has continued in the following years.[3]
These are some indications that with the rapid economic growth, the contradictions arising from the capitalist development strategy are growing and creating greater discontent among the people.
It is against this background that the state was compelled to take new moves to regulate social and labour relations by enacting national legislations (e.g. Trade Union Law 2001, Labour Contract Law 2007 and Social Insurance Law 2011) in order to build a better legal system for the protection of labour rights and social welfare. It also explains the motives of the Chinese state in accentuating 'harmonious society' and 'social management' as a result.
While the Chinese state seems to be learning smarter in capturing and responding to workers' grievances by launching pro-labour policies or legislations when compelled by widespread unrest, the frequent waves of strikes and organized protests by workers and peasants exposed clearly the frustration of the incomplete policy and haphazard legislation, which in appearance looking pro-labour but in essence always pro-capital and undemocratic.
In the context of the growing strength of workers' struggles for rights and representation, we observed that the working class people have constituted a powerful force to affect not only the economy but also the policies of the Chinese state. Foreseeably, there will be greater possibilities on the side of workers to come out with more demands and assertion, while more dual-hand measures are to be played by the government to reconcile the social conflicts. The 'carrot-AND-stick' approach – to pacify workers' discontent by promoting 'wage' negotiation AND penalize (and marginalize) worker activists and labour non-governmental organizations (NGOs) by monopolizing social resources under the state control, will be heightened.
Against this background, this article aims to provide our reflections on a number of key issues concerning China’s latest development trends in the field of labour. We will examine the issues with regard to the following questions:
1) How we interpret the latest moves of the Chinese official trade union (ACFTU) on unionizing and collective bargaining?
2) What are the new challenges faced by the local labour NGOs?
3) What are the significant impacts of our campaigning work?
1. Unionizing and bargaining: Policy-driven VS Protest-driven
The industrialized regions in China, such as the Guangdong Province and Zhejiang Province, have recently adopted initiatives to authorize and even 'assist' enterprise unions for collective consultation with management. Especially in the Guangdong Province where most of the coastal urban cities are located, the new move to experiment 'democratic management' of enterprises is acclaimed as the 'most advanced' in China. It is widely regarded that the policy initiatives are driven by the central government in order to reconcile the capital-labour-state confrontation.[4] The ACFTU is therefore strengthened in its role and responsibility by the party state to channel workers’ demands within the institutional framework. The ACFTU is endowed with the state power and resources to execute the political will of the Party. In particular, multinational or foreign companies in China are targeted in this national 'unionization' campaign, which has begun in 2008-2009. For example, many well-known Fortune 500 multinational companies running business in China have been pushed by the ACFTU to set up trade unions, including Walmart and Coca Cola. In March 2012, Chen Weiguang, head of the Guangzhou City Federation of Trade Unions, said the local union authorities will meet company executives or send working groups to push hard for collective salary negotiation if any Fortune 500 company failed to comply before their 'deadline' within the year.[5] Guangzhou City is the provincial capital in Guangdong Province, where locating more than 600 subsidiaries of the global Fortune 500 companies.
It is evident that the ACFTU is focusing its efforts on compelling more factories to sign collective contracts and form local unions, and focusing foreign enterprises as main target amid the widespread spate of labour unrest. According to a legal professor in Guangzhou, collective contracts were signed in almost 100 big enterprises under the 'instruction' of the ACFTU in 2010, covering about 3.8 million workers, and most of them were signed after the intensification of radical protests staged by workers in Guangdong region. It is very clear that the wave of strikes in 2010 (e.g. Honda workers' strike) have pushed the government authorities and the ACFTU to recognize the strong assertion and demands of workers' rights in terms of greater representation in the workplaces and in the unions. It is without doubt that the strikes and workers' action in the last few years marked a qualitative leap in China's labour movement as they compelled the Party state to address the workers' grievances more proactively, in the ways of national legislation and institutionalizing wage negotiation practices in order to pre-empt strikes.
Unlike the Guangdong collective wage negotiation models which are mostly as a result of labour activism as seen in the waves of strikes and industrial actions, the trade unionizing and collective wage negotiation practices in Jiangsu province (Yangtze River Delta Region) are more 'harmonious' in nature. The trade unions at various levels have strong presence in initiating and devising wage negotiation from top to down, from the traditional state-owned enterprises to more private and foreign-owned enterprises, from big enterprises to even township companies, carried along with a very clear political policy of achieving 'social stability' by regulating the capital competition and labour relations. It is obvious in our research that the majority of 'wage negotiation' or trade unionizing cases were initiated by the upper-level trade union rather than strike-induced. The top-down nature of 'organizing' can be illustrated clearly in a national policy of 'establishment by central party, by trade union, by party youth league, and by women league'.[6]
The collective negotiation frameworks were mainly for building a stable wage adjustment mechanism per se, which is no more than a 'political marriage of necessity' by the Party State, the ACFTU and the enterprises to achieve 'institutionalization' of wage negotiation model in order to avoid any 'spill-over' effects of workers' discontents. In most of the cases, the unions imposed administrative orders on the factories to come up with the following model in signing a collective contract:
Assigning representatives without election
distributing and collecting questionnaires to workers
drafting a contract
Selectively collect opinions from workers
redrafting the collective contract
signing the contract = a successful case
In the so-called 'negotiation' process, the three essential factors of a collective negotiation: independent trade union with negotiation skills, representatives elected by workers and the rights to strike, are absent in China. The employees do not have the power of self-organizing and they are not involved in the course of trade union actions which determine workers' rights and interests. To be precise, the 'collective bargaining' model of China is just a top-down regulatory facade imposed by the government institutions without substantiating or advancing workers' rights to freedom of association.
Such policy-driven model of union establishment is very different from the strike-induced model of wage negotiation and unionizing as seen in Guangdong. But even in Guangdong, despite the significance of 'strike' or 'workers' actions' is present, the fundamental crux of unionizing remains in the hands of the party. In Yangtze River Delta region, many enterprise unions undertake 'weiquan' (defend rights) antecedently before dispute or workers’ actions (or the so-called 'pre-incident intervention') by leading the enterprises to form unions. In Guangdong, however, many negotiation or unionizing cases were taken into place in way of 'post-incident intervention '.
In essence, all forms of 'government intervention' in unionizing are attributable to the aim of 'social management' of the party state. It is regarded as an expansion of state socialism rather than a democratic development in the course of devising industrial relations system in China.
2. New challenges faced by the local labour NGOs: Co-optation or Coercion
Due to various institutional and resources restrictions, the current development of Chinese labour NGOs is, however, still in the initial stage. In general, civil society development in China is still contingent upon the space given by the state, and its capacity to act is dependent on the level of tolerance of the state. Firstly, the Chinese state, under the pressure of 'social stability over-riding everything', it can take back the space it opens to the civil society. It is a space of arbitrariness. Secondly, the actions of many civil society organizations have to be consistent with the needs of the state in order for the former to survive. Civil society actions such as those promoting economic development can easily gain government support. This can be verified from the rapid development of business associations and enterprise associations. Labour issues, on the contrary, are a subject of alarm for the state due to their political sensitivity. Labour NGOs that provide services and organize workers are closely watched and their development is sternly restricted, if not banned.
Based on our direct observation, the operations of many mainland labour NGOs are still limited in scope and in lack of support. Generally, there are 4 major operation modes of many Mainland labour NGOs:
First, there are labour rights NGOs wearing the hat of the government. They cooperate and build relationship with the local state to intervene on labour rights issues in the name and the language of the government. The activities taken by these organizations are not part of an independent social force.
The second type of labour organizations uses the name of "NGO" to gain economic resources by applying for funding from foreign foundations or other sources. Some even make money by operating as or like a company. This is done in three ways: charging fees from the target beneficiaries for instance in legal representation in the court room; acting as the agents for the lawyer firms and dividing the returns; and starting other subordinate businesses to supplement income. The merging of profit-generating and non-profiteering activities creates financial un-clarity and poses credibility problems.
The third type of organizations is formed by "individuals inside the institution" such as academics, scholars or legal professionals. These organizations are not the direct subsidiaries of the government, but they have more channels connected to the government. Compared to the grassroots NGOs, these NGOs formed by intellectuals and legal professionals have more capacity in influencing the policy making. They are regarded as allies or partners of social lobbying by the grassroots labour groups in advocating policy changes at the local level.
The fourth type is grassroots organizations mainly formed by former workers or labour victims, who are activists themselves and have experience in labour struggles or workers' strikes. Many of these small and grassroots groups are receiving external support (including from Hong Kong) for survival. While some of them may be able to register with the Civil Affairs Ministry in name of "private non-enterprise unit", many are operating informally under the risk of government crackdown because of their "illegal" and "independent" entities.
In the case of LAC, our two rural centers in Sichuan and Chongqing are formally registered with the local Civil Affairs Bureau, but the Shenzhen liaison office can only exist informally, if not underground. The fact is that independent labour groups in the urban South (e.g. Guangdong) face more social and political suppression than those in the rural regions (e.g. Sichuan). Despite lacking stability, they form an important grassroots force from the bottom in supporting collective actions of migrant workers. Their organizing methods include providing paralegal aid, education and training, dispute mediation, and social gatherings to the fellow workers. To most of these NGOs particularly those in the Pearl River Delta region, Hongkong NGOs are traditionally the source of funds, information, ideas and work models.
The mainland NGOs directly established and supported by LAC belong to the fourth type. But on top of that, we also seek cooperation with the third type of organizations, given that in China academics and activist lawyers can be influential agents in the labour rights movements and involving them as our strategic stakeholders can provide stronger push to our advocacy and expand the spectrum of NGO participation in China.
In implementing our projects, LAC organized multi-lateral and multi-level activities to promote cooperation and mutual support amongst various NGO partners both in Guangdong and in inland provinces. The local partners include LAC in-house branches in China and the local NGO fellows that have grassroots representation and independence. For LAC, the rural-urban integration approach is key to our organizing objective. We aim to engage and spread the relatively more developed grassroots model from Guangdong to the rural regions. Meanwhile, we strive to adopt more diversified methods according to their different levels of developments.
Cooptation OR Coercion?
In recent months, the Chinese government introduced some new measures[7] which appear to be 'positive' steps in 'relaxing' the control on NGOs. However, instead of giving more room and space for independent civil society development, the Chinese authorities are now exercising a 'dual-hand' approach: to co-opt the majority and coerce the minority, in order to reinforce the state control over the society.
Unlike using tight and direct control on the 'legality' or 'legitimacy' of the civil society organizations (e.g. by imposing strict conditions on registration), the state is now relaxing the registration but at the same time, mobilizing huge resources to make sure the civil society organizations are put under the party influence in a way of 'implanting' party apparatus into the organizations and 'co-opting' the grassroots NGOs by funding their services.
On 17 May 2012, the Federation of Guangdong Province Worker Services Organizations was formed. The federation is directly affiliated with and supervised by the Guangdong Provincial Federations of Trade Unions (GDFTU). Members of the federation are not grassroots trade unions but academic institutions and NGOs which provide legal services to workers and migrants. In a speech given in the formation ceremony, chairman of the GDFTU Deng Weilong said in order to perform as the node of social organizations according to the holistic social management policy of the party state, the GDFTU will have new missions.[8] Previously, the GDFTU had to form unions only in the formal economic sector and in the production plants. Now, the GDFTU is even further commissioned with a new political task to 'lead' social organizations and labour NGOs. To fulfill the duty instructed by the party state, the GDFTU has to liaise with labour NGOs by funding their social services, to balance different parties' interests and reconcile social conflicts.
Many organizations, which have difficulties in survival due to the lack of funding, have to face the options of either ‘co-opted’ by the government or 'coerced' for non-cooperation. Under this situation, the state trade union maintains a monopoly status – not only as the sole trade union but also the 'care-taker' and ‘supervisor’ of NGOs in the realm of labor works.
The Chinese government is going to roll out a 'good' plan that would ease NGO registration by allowing more social organizations to register directly with the Civil Affairs Bureau without first requiring a supervisory body. Currently, social organizations must find a government agency to act as a supervisory body before they can be legally registered as an NGO, which has been a major hindrance to NGO development in China. So far, at least three million NGOs exist in China but only 440,000 of them were registered with civil affairs departments at the end of 2011, according to the government figures.[9]
At first glance, this is a positive move. However, it is also a worrying trend that the party has put more efforts in penetrating into the civil society development. Since Civil Affairs Bureau is holding the authority on NGO registration, it could grasp the comprehensive information on the social organizations profiles. Social organizations would be scanned to see the feasibility of party structure formation in the registration and annual examination process. And in fact, in many social organizations and trade unions, communist party structures are formed. For example, party apparatus such as 'united party committee for social organizations' (「社會團體聯合黨委」and 'social organizations works committee' (「社會團體工作委員會」) are established. A report of the Shenzhen United Party Committee for Social Organizations has a clear description on how party structure should be formed and the expectation of the Party on the whole hierarchy.[10]
In the current stage of labour NGO development, Hong Kong organizations still play an influential role in providing professional and institutional assistance to their mainland counterparts. Some other mainland organizations develop relations with the Hong Kong NGOs in terms of exchange and learnings. This close relation is historical and well-established. But the lack of subjectivity and transparency of mainland labour NGOs is an issue which has been brought under critical reflections by the labour organizations of both sides. For LAC, we reckon that localization of our subsidized groups in China is vital and essential for the development of an independent labour movement in China. While openness from the side of Hong Kong groups is essential, the growth of consciousness and material support are also keys to the development of social organizations in Mainland China. So far, the search for an independent model of development is yet to be clear. This issue will continue to be further discussed and explored in the next few years.
3. LAC’s campaigning work: Achievements and Impacts
Over the past eight years, LAC has developed our organizing strategy with the grassroots migrant workers and the occupational disease victims in supporting their industrial actions and legal pursuits by addressing the defects of the existing occupational safety and health (OSH) system in China. We aim to build political consciousness and workers’ solidarity among the injured and diseased workers and support their self-organizing efforts to challenge the failure of state authorities in protecting workers’ rights.
Rather than workplace organizing at shopfloor level in a narrow sense, the campaign for the rights of occupational disease victims manifested a broader platform for the migrant workers in speaking up and mobilizing themselves as a force at the society level. In the process, LAC assisted the workers not only in their pursuit of compensation by legal approach, but also mobilized and engaged with different social partners (e.g. international trade unions and NGOs) to provide more space, network, resources and solidarity support to the Chinese workers. Meanwhile, we organized workers to negotiate with capital, which include not only their direct employers in China, but also the trade and industry associations beyond the workplace in the international level. The more comprehensive negotiation platform aim to serve the long term interests of migrant workers in addressing not only their individual problems but also in their capacity for changing and influencing the policies concerning their rights.
In retrospect, the year 2010 marked a time of jubilant achievement of LAC after years of supporting the collective legal struggles of Chinese migrant workers for fighting their legal compensation for the cause of occupational disease. In March 2010, the world’s largest jewellery trade fair organizer, the Baselworld in Switzerland and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council made a decision to disqualify a Hong Kong jewellery company’s exhibition status in 2010. It is the first-ever move of the international trade fair organizers to exercise a sanction on a Hong Kong-owned company over labour rights violations with reference to the ILO Convention 155.
The action taken by the Baselworld and the HKTDC can be regarded as a landmark change as the effect is expected to raise the social cost of violation of occupational safety and health standards and therefore reduce the employers’ malpractices and non-compliance with the national and international OSH regulations. It also proves that the years of campaigning and lobbying targeting the trade associations and the trade fair organisers for taking up their social responsibilities can bring concrete changes in the behaviours/decision making of these social actors in reacting to calls for labour rights compliance.
At the same time, the mainland Chinese courts made final verdicts in supporting the full compensation claims of Chinese workers in September 2010. The court rulings set a very important precedent affirming the Chinese migrant workers’ rights to seek civil compensation from the Hong Kong employers on grounds of their violations of China’s national laws on occupational health and safety. Most importantly, it is the first time that the Chinese court supported workers’ compensation claims on both work injury insurance (covering one-off disability subsidy, one-off medical subsidy and expenditure in diagnosis, certification etc.) and civil compensation (including living costs of dependents, continuous medical treatment costs and compensation for psychological distress). The rulings were made on the legal grounds of Article 23, 26 and 27 of “Guangdong Province Work Injury Insurance Regulations”, Article 84 of “Contract Law”, Article 52 of “Occupational Disease Prevention Law”, Article 19, 25 and 28 of “Explanations on several problems of applicable laws in the hearing of personal injury compensation cases”, and Article 153 and 229 of “Civil Litigation Law” of China.
Advocacy in legislative changes to the current OSH system in China is our prime work. It is developed based on the concrete breakthroughs brought up by the workers. We have synthesized the breakthrough cases in relation to the abovementioned key laws for national and provincial lobbying. On the other hand, we continue to lobby and have dialogue with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) regarding their responsibility in monitoring China’s implementation of work safety requirements.
Concluding remarks
For LAC and other labour NGOs working in China, the challenge in the next stage lies in the need to build up  long-term strategies based on the self-organizing of workers in particular to achieve associational and bargaining rights on top of their legal struggles and protest actions. To achieve this, education on trade union rights, collective wage negotiation and sharing on work strike experience are to be carried out.
Seeing the trend of capital shift and factory relocation from the urban south to more rural north due to the new search for cheaper labour in China, LAC’s strategy of rural-urban integration is seen to be more important in line with the new forms of labour migration. Our two centers in Sichuan and Chongqing will not only engage in ‘pre-departure’ training and publicity, but also directly take part in handling labour dispute cases and organizing young workers given the growing presence of labour-intensive industries in the inland provinces. We see that there will be a co-existence of the ‘old’ migrant workers returning to the rural home provinces and an emergence of ‘new’ factory workers in north western provinces in the next few years. A challenge will lie ahead in organizing both the reserved army of young labour force and the returned labour victims in rural China. Advocating for labour and civil rights protection and redistribution on social resources will be highlighted in our organizing programs in Sichuan and Chongqing.
To further develop our capacity and strength in advocating OSH-related rights, we will engage more target groups to extend our lobbying platform in China, including the university scholars and researchers, lawyers, labour groups in various provinces such as Guangdong, Zhejiang, Hubei and Sichuan. Advocacy and alliance building will be the prime work. LAC will continue our efforts on policy analysis, influencing the policy making at the local level, promoting workers’ articulation on labour and social rights issues, as well as supporting the self-organizing of migrant workers at large.

[1] <中国的群体性事件增多,政府不得不倾听民众的呼声> ,《自由亚洲电台》(Radio Free Asia),09-10-2011;  Quote from Los Angeles Times, 2011. See:
[2] <中國‧愈繁榮社會衝突愈嚴重‧胡錦濤提8點改善社會管理>,《星州日報》(Sin Chew Daily),20-2-2011;
[3] The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Blue Book of China’s Society  (社会蓝皮书), 2010; quoted in Wall Street Journal, ‘Unrest Grows As Economy Booms’, 26 September 2011,, Zugriff am 26. Juli 2012.
[4] <23省區市制定地方性法規推動工資集體協商> (23 Cities across China roll out collective wage negotiation legislation),中國網 (China Net),2010-06-08;
[6] 「儘管《工會法》規定工會是「職工自願結合」的群眾組織,但目前新建的工會都不是工人自發組建的,而是國家自上而下推行的。為了在新建企業中組建工會,全國總工會(以下簡稱全總)於1999年專門在寧波召開了新建企業工會組建大會,提出「哪裏有職工,哪裏就要建立工會」的口號,制定了各級黨委牽頭,黨建帶工建,工建促黨建,黨工共建的建會方針,由此在全國範圍內拉開了新建企業建會的運動。工會組建的國家壟斷、自上而下的強制推行、而非自下而上的自願認同,是目前工會難以代表工人利益的重要原因。」
來源: 韓恒,<關注工會系統的自主利益─對基層企業工會的調查與思考>,《二十一世紀》網絡版 二○○五年七月號 總第 40 期,2005年7月31日
[7] In September 2011, the Provincial CCP Committee and the provincial government of Guangdong passed the Resolution of the CCPC and People’s Government of Guangdong on Strengthening Social Construction <中共广东省委广东省人民政府关于加强社会建设的决定> to systemically launch a number of social reforms including relaxation of the registration of civil society organizations and delegation of certain public/social services to the social organizations.
[8] N.N. (2012): 广东省职工服务类社会组织联合会在广州成立,, 16 May 2012,, last access 1 August 2012.
[9] Zou, Le (2011): NGO registration rules to be relaxed nationwide: civil affairs minister, Global Times, 25 March 2011,, last access 1 August 2012.