Strikes Grow in China as Grassroots Labor Movement Takes Shape

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Strikes Grow in China as Grassroots Labor Movement Takes Shape

Emerging awareness of workers' rights will 'push the society forward,' labor activist says

Chinese workers strike at a Honda factory in 2010. (Photo: AP)

As the economic landscape in China continues to shift, an awakening working class is demanding fair treatment and higher wages—and the movement is picking up steam.

The Associated Press on Monday highlighted the emerging resistance to workplace exploitation and authoritarian government policies that has steadily grown over the past four years, with numbers of strikers doubling annually since 2011 until they reached more than 1,300 last year.

Shi Jieying, a handbag factory worker who took part in a strike last month which ended in a shutdown by riot police, told the AP on Monday, "I didn't think of it as protesting, just defending our rights."

Only through the proliferation of social media in China did Shi learn that she was entitled to social security funding and a housing allowance, the AP writes.

Duan Yi, a leading Chinese labor lawyer, told the AP, "What we are seeing is the forming of China's labor movement in a real sense."

China's labor law, which went into effect in 1995, guarantees the right to a decent wage, rest periods, no excessive overtime, and the right of collective bargaining. However, workers may only strike under the banner of the state-run All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the country's sole legally recognized union, which is seen by critics as an ineffective body that represents government and employer interests.

As In These Times explains, recent protests have been launched without the authorization of the ACFTU, leaving workers without an organizational structure for their movement and vulnerable to hostile reactions from the government, which is adverse to grassroots movements that can threaten the ruling party's hold.

In These Times continues:

Now, however, the movement appears to be starting to achieve significant institutional reform. After years of legislative wrangling and stiff opposition from employers, last September the People’s Congress of Guangdong Province in South China passed groundbreaking new “Regulations on Collective Contracts for Enterprises,” which took effect in January. The new rules establish more democratic forms of union representation and a genuine system of collective bargaining.

The new regulations signal ACFTU officials' willingness to hear new labor reform ideas and their acknowledgment that labor leaders must "represent the workers and not play the middleman," according to Chen Weiguang, former head of the Guangzhou Federation of Trade Unions.

But the government remains opposed to workers challenging its authority, being quick to crack down on unauthorized protests and activism. The AP writes:

Although authorities have long ignored labor law violations by companies, activists say authorities now dispatch police—and dogs, in at least one case—to factories to restore order or even restart production. They have also detained leading activists and harassed organizations that help workers.

....Workers who organize on their own can be arrested, not for striking but on charges such as disrupting traffic, business or social order.

Zhang Zhiru, a workers' rights activist who has faced repeated police harassment, told the AP that the government will not stop obstructing the labor movement, but said the "social development and the increasing awareness of workers about their need to protect their rights will push the society forward."

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