A Decade of Change: The Workers’ Movement in China 2000-2010

At the beginning of the Twenty-first Century, tens of millions of poor rural labourers flooded into the factory towns of southern China. They worked long hours for low pay in frequently hazardous conditions with little opportunity for redress. All the power lay with the boss, and the government did little to help.

By the end of the decade however, the picture had changed. China’s workers were still being exploited but they were far more willing to stand up to that exploitation and demand a better deal. Employers no longer had everything their own way, and the Chinese government introduced a range of legislative and policy measures designed to boost incomes and reduce social inequality and injustice.

In a new research report published this week, China Labour Bulletin analyses how this remarkable transformation took place, and discusses how the picture might change again in the future. The 24-page report looks at 553 worker protests that took place over the eleven years from 2000 to 2010. It plots the changes in the distribution of these protests across different industries, the changes in workers’ demands and tactics used to further those demands, and the changes in the composition of the workforce that fed into the wave of strikes in China’s manufacturing sector in the summer of 2010.

The report shows how demographic shifts combined with economic growth and social change over the decade have given China’s workers more bargaining power, and  how a younger, better educated, more aspirational workforce that is more aware of its legal rights has learnt to use that bargaining power to its advantage. Workers are not only more confident in their ability to organize strikes and protests, they are increasingly willing to sit down with their employer and negotiate a settlement on behalf of their co-workers. Indeed, in some factories, workers have already established an embryonic system of collective bargaining.

In the future, CLB argues, this experimental stage of collective bargaining needs to develop into a more stable and institutionalised system that can provide effective channels of communication between labour and management. Such a system would lead to more productive and fundamentally more equitable labour relations in China. While without it, social tensions will inevitably rise and the government’s hoped for “harmonious society” will slip even further into the distance.

A Decade of Change: The Workers’ Movement in China 2000-2010 is now available as a downloadable PDF.

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