Bringing China’s workers’ movement to the world

Following his well-received speech in Britain on the “fast emerging labour movement in China and its impact on the country's future,” CLB Director Han Dongfang has published a commentary in the Financial Times and has been telling Canadian audiences face-to-face about the shifting dynamics of the Chinese labour movement.

At the invitation of the Christian Labour Association of Canada, Han gave a speech at the Vancouver Public Library on 16 September that outlined the current status and future prospects for the hundreds of millions of workers in China.

As in his Financial Times commentary, Han argued that the sympathetic stereotype of seeing Chinese workers as “victims” should be changed because workers were much more aware of their rights and working conditions continued to improve as a result of their efforts, the Chinese-language World Journal (世界新闻网) reported on 17 September 2013.

Han pointed out that the strikes and protests that had occurred across the country over the last five years not only proved the aforementioned points, but also showed that workers are taking a more proactive stance during labour disputes. But, in an era of globalisation, he said, the salaries and other benefits for Chinese workers have failed to improve in accordance with the pace of the economy, business operations and commodity prices, while a mechanism to protect workers’ rights and the free exchange of labour and reward is still absent in China.

However, Han remained optimistic about the direction the labour movement in China is heading, and he saw the lower profile role played by the government in labour disputes as a positive sign.

Han stressed however that simply staging strikes is not a long term solution. “Strikes can threaten workers’ job security, they can bring economic losses to the employer, and put pressure on the government,” Han said.

By contrast, he stressed that a triple win could be achieved if a collective bargaining system was established at the enterprise level which allowed democratically elected workers’ representatives to sit at the negotiating table with the employers on a regular basis to solve disputes in a more manageable way.

Han has often argued that workplace democracy is the key to building wider democracy in China, and a letter in response to his Financial Times commentary seems to take up this theme too.

Mark Hudson from London wrote on 23 September that:

In the UK, it was arguably the arrival of union activism in the latter part of the 19th century that led to truly representative democracy, since it was from the union movement that the Labour party came – breaking up the cosy alternation of power between two parties which sprang from the same broad establishment (i.e. the Whigs/Liberals and the Tories/Conservatives).

The path to democracy in China may be similar, with worker activism gradually gaining sufficient force to oppose (or substantially modify) the nexus of government/party/business/military leadership that controls China.

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