China’s Growing Labor Movement Threatens Beijing

Without independent unions, workers aren’t holding back any longer.

Striking workers block the entrance to Hi-P International factory in Shanghai during a protest on Dec. 2, 2011. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Mar 16, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

As the economic downturn in China continues and more jobs are outsourced overseas or eliminated entirely, workers are standing up in spite of the country’s ban on independent labor unions.

With little left to lose and few avenues for legal recourse, aggrieved Chinese workers are organizing protests in growing numbers. According to the Hong Kong–based advocacy group China Labour Bulletin, 2015 saw twice as many worker strikes as the previous year—and the repression of workers by employers and government officials has followed.

“Workers are more aware and have more knowledge about their legal rights,” said Aaron Halegua, a consultant and research scholar with New York University’s School of Law. “Social media has also made it easier for workers to communicate with each other and to connect with labor NGOs.”

With companies shutting down, wages getting cut, and layoffs on the rise, employees have little left to lose if they choose to speak up.

“That’s a huge driver in why you’re seeing this increase in protests and strikes,” said Halegua. “The official union does not function to help resolve these issues between workers and employers, and China has failed to create any other effective system for the two sides to communicate about and resolve workplace problems.”

The country’s only legal union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, is essentially a front group for the Communist Party, which controls the Chinese government. Despite the power that its 288 million members might wield, unlike labor unions in the U.S., the ACFTU doesn’t engage in collective bargaining on behalf of workers and has no hand in organizing strikes or protests. The majority of ACFTU officials are appointed by the central government in Beijing, according to the International Trade Union Federation.

“China’s unions do not belong to the workers,” Meng Han, a hospital security guard in the southern province of Guangdong, told The Economist.

Guangdong boasts the country’s largest concentration of manufacturing plants, making it home to the highest number of protests, as tracked by the China Labor Bulletin’s Strike Map. As of March 11, the group recorded 124 strikes or protests in the province in the last three months alone.

Those who participate are increasingly the targets of repression. Strike leaders are often arrested or detained, and state-sanctioned violence via the police is commonplace. Three activists in Guangdong—Meng Han, Zeng Feiyang, and He Xiaobo—are still being detained on criminal charges following their Dec. 3, 2015, arrest for “assembling crowds to disrupt social order” and have been denied access to their lawyers.

With China embarking on a transition from a manufacturing-based economy to a consumer-driven one—just 35 years after investing wholeheartedly in transitioning from an agricultural economy to an industrial one—these growing pains may only be the beginning. Beijing’s challenge will be keeping the people happy enough with continued economic growth that Communist Party leaders are able to hold on to power.