Wall Street Journal:China Aims to Soothe Labor Unrest

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

April 8, 2015

BEIJING—As slowing growth fuels labor unrest in the world’s second-largest economy, China’s top leadership is pushing for greater efforts to foster harmony across its increasingly agitated workforce.

In a recent directive, top Communist Party and government officials called on party cadres and bureaucrats across the country to “make the construction of harmonious labor relations an urgent task,” to ensure “healthy economic development” and to consolidate the party’s “governing status.”

The policy paper was issued late last month and has circulated widely among Chinese labor scholars, lawyers and activists, who say it signals Beijing’s growing concern that festering labor tensions could soon threaten social stability or even weaken the party’s grip on power.

With China “currently in a period of economic and social transition,” labor relations have become “increasingly pluralistic, labor tensions have entered a period of increased prominence and frequency, and the incidence of labor disputes remains high,” the paper said, according to a copy reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. It cited problems including unpaid wages to China’s legions of migrant workers, growing protests and other issues.

Labor scholars say the paper—titled “the Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council’s opinion on the construction of harmonious labor relations”—marks a rare move by Beijing to formally outline policy priorities for tackling worker unrest. It also comes after Premier Li Keqiang pledged in early March, during an annual policy speech, to curb unpaid wages for migrant workers.

“The government is acknowledging the reality of rising worker unrest and wants to make this a bigger priority,” said Wang Jiangsong, a professor at the China Institute of Industrial Relations in Beijing. “But it also lacks specifics on implementation—it remains to be seen how this would work on the ground.”

Communist Party press officials referred queries to the Party Central Committee’s General Office but declined to provide its contact information. Other numbers for the office rang unanswered. The State Council, China’s cabinet, referred queries to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, which didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Labor unrest in China worsened over the past year as the country’s economic growth decelerated to 7.4% in 2014, the slowest pace in more than two decades.

Strike occurrences more than doubled last year to 1,378, according to China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based watchdog, although it said that the increase is partly due to the growing use of social media among migrant workers, which gives labor protests more visibility.

The trend extended into the first three months of this year, when the labor group logged 650 incidents, up from 569 in the previous quarter, as disputes over unpaid wages and work benefits swelled in the construction and manufacturing sectors.

The paper urges local government officials to pay more attention to fostering industrial harmony, rather than chase economic growth targets at the potential expense of social stability.

While the opinion doesn’t offer any groundbreaking policy initiatives, it summarizes a slew of measures that many government and union officials have advocated in recent years, including promoting collective bargaining and improving workers’ legal protections and dispute-resolution mechanisms.

However, it doesn’t offer any role for civil society, an omission that analysts say likely reflects Beijing’s growing intolerance toward activism. Local officials have adopted increasingly aggressive tactics against labor unrest in the past year, arresting activists and workers, as well as deploying riot-control police to break up strikes.

“The opinion emphasizes a state-centric approach to managing labor relations, based on the rule of law, as directed by the government, and facilitated by state-controlled trade unions,” said Qiao Jian, a professor at the China Institute of Industrial Relations, a university affiliated with China’s official union federation.

Some observers are also skeptical over the paper’s impact at the local level, given that provincial and municipal authorities often favor businesses in labor disputes, while many workers don’t trust state-controlled unions to represent their interests.

“While this paper suggests that the authorities are taking labor tensions more seriously, it doesn’t necessarily mean major changes on the ground,” said He Yuancheng, who edits an online forum for Laowei, a labor-focused law firm in the southern industrial city of Shenzhen. “Their policy goals remain old hat—no breakthroughs there.”

—Kersten Zhang contributed to this article.

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