Trouble brewing in China

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Estelle Cooch and Jack Farmer spoke to Geoffrey Crothall from the China Labour Bulletin about workers' resistance in China.

What are the main reasons behind the upsurge of strikes in China recently?
There are lots of different reasons. The most fundamental is that workers don't really have any other option if they want to pursue their economic interests or defend their legal rights. There is no established system of dialogue workers can use to express their grievances with employers. The only way they can get their voices heard is basically to go on strike.

The main causes of disputes are the same ones we've been hearing about for many years now, which are low pay, long working hours, unreasonable demands by employers and poor and often dangerous working conditions.

Are there any patterns to the strikes?
We've just done a survey looking at a number of cases over the past decade, looking at the distribution of disputes in different industries and so on. The vast majority of disputes occur in the manufacturing sector, around 70 percent. Most of those are in the private sector. If you're looking for the kernel of labour disputes, it's among privately owned manufacturers.

That said, there is a wide range of strikes and labour disputes across the country in different sectors. We see a lot of disputes in the transport sector. Taxi drivers in particular are very willing and able to go on strike and stage stoppages, as are bus drivers and truck drivers.

Also we've seen strikes by sanitation workers - they're becoming increasingly common because these workers really are some of the lowest paid in China. People working in hospitals as well - the traditional low paid sectors are the ones that are increasingly taking strike action. That includes teachers, especially kindergarten teachers who have very few qualifications and are typically low paid.

Most strikes reported in the West seem to involve migrant workers in the export industries. Is that accurate?
You have to realise that young migrant workers now form the bulk of the workforce. To all intents and purposes they are the workforce. So it is a fair assumption to say that it's young migrant workers who are leading these protests.

Although they're classified as migrants from various areas, they have often grown up in the cities in which they're working or were even born there because their parents were workers before them. They see themselves as urban residents even if local government and administrators don't.

There have been some reports of striking workers directly electing representatives. Is this widespread?
It's becoming increasingly common. It's difficult to say how widespread it is. We've definitely seen more and more examples of workers being willing to stand for election and of workers themselves organising their own representatives to go and talk to management.

This is a very important development because in the past you would find that workers were reluctant to engage in face to face negotiations with management because they'd fear reprisals after the fact. They would often hope that local government would do the negotiations on their behalf or act as a go-between so that they didn't have to actually sit in the same room. But that is changing. Workers are increasingly confident and sure of themselves, enough to sit down and make an agreement.

It goes without saying that all this goes on outside the remit and activities of the official trade union.

Have there been any calls for independent unions?
Not really. What you see is the call for the official trade union to act more democratically. So people haven't called for unions independent of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Instead they're saying that the union at our factory has to be democratically elected and the union chairman has to work for us, rather than having some government official or civil servant appointed by the ACFTU negotiating on behalf of workers.

Has online media - websites, social media, chat rooms - played a role in spreading ideas among Chinese workers?
Very much so. These young factory workers, who are often teenagers or people in their twenties, all grew up being familiar with mobile phones and the internet and so on. Everyone uses microblogs or chatrooms or instant messaging to communicate with each other in their daily lives. It's second nature to them to use these tools when they're organising.

Internet chatrooms are used to kick ideas around and microblogs are used to provide real-time updates about how strikes are progressing and how negotiations with management are progressing - what management have said in response to demands and so on.

Are strikes widely reported in China?
Increasingly they are being reported. In our latest report we investigated how much the official media is reporting strike action. In the first half of the period 2000-2006 there is basically nothing. If strikes are reported they're reported as "Government puts down social unrest", that type of thing. Now, with the growth of social media and the expansion of the private and commercial media in China, more and more media outlets are reporting strikes and they're reporting from the outset of those strikes as well. They talk to workers, ask them what the problems are, what their grievances are. That kind of thing is increasingly reported.

I think the government is realising that it can't simply ban all of these reports. It will try to ban some of them and put pressure on media outlets to not report some of them. But more and more they are trying to exert control from within, to try to direct the story from within. They try to set the news agenda. There's debate as to how successful they've been. The main point is that, for young people in China today, their main source of news is social media, rather than the official media. In many cases the official media has little choice but to follow social media.

What do you think will be the pattern of strikes in China in the next few years?
Much of the same. For as long as there is no real effective system for resolving labour disputes through peaceful negotiation and collective bargaining workers are not going to back down. They will continue to go on strike. I think what we might see is, as people begin to gain experience and learn more about how to do effective bargaining, you might begin to see the development of a more formalised system of collective bargaining. Unless that happens, you're going to see more and more strikes.
Geoffrey Crothall is China Labour Bulletin's spokesperson. CLB's latest reports can be read at www.clb.org.hk/en/