China’s rising tide of strikes

Garment manufacturing in China, courtesy of Shutterstock

China must deal with worker unrest. Can it learn anything from a thousand-year-old Viking king? In this long read, Stirling Smith reflects on a newly published book, China On Strike.

This blog is a departure. It's a book review. I've been reading China On Strike, first-hand accounts by workers themselves, which has been put together by volunteers. 

As workers' voices are usually conspicuously absent from the reports, conferences, seminars, audits and meetings about CSR and ethical trade, this book is worth a look.

Reportage on China in the UK is limited. You would never know that every year, one of the largest movement of human beings takes place in China, as workers leave their jobs in the east, and return home for the New Year.

Or the creation, in the space of a generation, of the world's largest working class. People who were scratching a living from the land now experience the rhythms and disciplines of urban factory life.

When you work according to the sun and seasons, adjusting to the new rules is difficult. It gives rise to all kinds of problems. Problems at work left unresolved become conflicts.

China's workers are not unique in this, of course. In Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam - most of the countries on your sourcing list - the same process is happening.

But China is on a different scale.

Spontaneous strikes

Back to the book. It seems that strikes are rarely planned.

Some workers have an issue, and just don't leave their dormitories when their shift starts. Or they might go to the machines, and just not turn them on. Sometimes, workers form a procession, and march to the local office of the Labour Bureau, to sort things out.

Resolving these strikes can be quite difficult, as workers rarely have a clear list of demands, and often have no spokesperson. But somehow, negotiations take place, and simple things are resolved: food or accommodation is improved.

It's rare to find anything written down. Because how do you enforce collective agreements where there is no mechanism to do so?

A far cry from something I have also been reading (the things I do for the ETI), the collective agreement for the garment industry in just one province in South Africa, KwaZulu Natal, which runs to nearly 80 pages. And where a tripartite structure can help sort out disagreements.

The strike capital of the world

To somebody from the Anglo Saxon, or even European, tradition of industrial relations, all this seems rather odd.

There is no organisation. There is no proper collective bargaining with a set of rules resulting in a written agreement between accountable representative of workers on the one hand, and management representatives on the other.

Nevertheless, China is not just the strike capital of the world, it is also the collective bargaining centre of the world.

Not just in the private sector, in global supply chains, but workers like taxi drivers, local municipal sanitation and garbage workers, and workers in the old, public sector behemoths like steel plants.

There is no official data, but some NGOs try to keep track. Read here and here

Strikes without trade unions, collective bargaining without rules

Of course there IS the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACTFU). On paper, ACTFU is the largest trade union organisation in the world.

In practice, top leaders are appointed by the Communist Party. At enterprise level, leaders are managers, often the Head of HR.

The government has talked about changing this, and making ACFTU a member-controlled organisation. But that would be contrary to the general trend of government policy in recent years which is one of centralisation.

The global trade union movement is divided on how to treat the ACFTU.

Some unions keep their distance, saying that the ACFTU is phoney, and should be boycotted. Others believe that engagement is the best route, and that Chinese trade unions can be helped to move towards better representing workers.

And to be fair, there are some limited signs of movement, at a very local level.

Parallel means?

The ETI position can be found in the Base Code:

Where the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining is restricted under law, the employer facilitates, and does not hinder, the development of parallel means for independent and free association and bargaining.

Experience of this is mixed. These “parallel means” may still be subject to management control, and don’t represent workers. In cases where workers are elected to the structures and start to play a questioning role, management has moved to victimise the activists.

Some brands have put big resources into setting up such "parallel means", things like health and safety committees. They rarely seem to last once the brand support is phased out.

There could be a number of reasons. Active, trained workers might move on, to another workplace, or get promoted to supervisor. Or the ACFTU at town or city level takes over the structure. 

You see, the Chinese Communist Party and the ACFTU operate on the principle of democratic centralism, a doctrine invented by Lenin. That says that the higher body supervises the lower body. So the central committee of the ACFTU controls the country or city structures, which control the enterprise structures. 

But workers are not too bothered by all that. They will just protest or go on strike, unmindful of the ACFTU or any rules.

Lessons from a Viking king

China's leaders know their history. That's why they get annoyed at lectures on human rights from the British. Until 1907, it was quite legal to sell opium to China, which was exported from India. The memory of this is strong.

But they could learn from British history.

It's exactly one thousand years since Canute became King of England. Our Danish and Norwegian ETI friends spell his name Knut, but I'm going to stick to something that I can pronounce without swallowing my tongue.

The story that everybody knows about Canute is his fruitless attempt to turn back the sea.

The legend goes that he was so annoyed by toadying courtiers telling him how powerful he was, that he ordered his throne to be taken down to the sea shore. He sat on his throne and commanded the tide to cease, surrounded by those toadies. As the water lapped around his feet, only God, he pointed out, was omnipotent. You can't stop the sea.

Now leaving aside that the probable origin of the story was Canute's brilliant PR spin doctors, making him out as humble and God fearing, it has a valuable lesson for China's leaders. And their counterparts in Vietnam, Bangladesh etc.

Rules at work

When you let loose the floodgates of industrialisation, one consequence is the creation of a new class, the working class.

I'm not using Marxist jargon here. The term was first used before dear old Karl was even born. This is a description of millions of people with a particular relationship to their work.

And it's like the tide. You can't turn it back, however powerful you are. It's like a force of nature.

And so you have to have a strategy of dealing with that new class. You can shoot them down if they try to organise, an approach followed in the UK, USA and even Sweden, earlier in history.

Or you can sit down and work out a set of rules at national level, or industry, or factory by factory. Let's call those rules something like, say, social dialogue or industrial relations.

Not having those rules does not mean you avoid strikes or conflict. As China on strike shows, workers will just take action in a rather inchoate fashion.

China can learn the Canute lesson the easy way, or the hard way. The current leadership seems to be going down the hard route, with a clampdown on the small groups who try to help workers in dispute. 

In the topsy-turvy world of Chinese politics, this clamp down on tiny local groups of workers’ rights defenders is called "left wing".

What can companies do?

What to do, assuming you have any influence with your Chinese suppliers?

If the supplier has an official ACFTU presence, you could push for election procedures that give workers a real chance of voting for someone of their choice, not a manager. You could arrange independent training for the committee that was then elected.

In one or two parts of China, the ACFTU does support, to a limited extent, proper elections and something approaching collective bargaining.

And in some areas, local regulations do provide a framework for collective bargaining or consultation. If you are sourcing in these areas, then it might be possible to work within the system and encourage new more democratic enterprise based ACFTU branch.

The ETI has specialist staff in China who can advise you about these local regulations.

You could try and help the supplier to set up a proper system for handling workers grievances. There is an obscure piece of Chinese legislation which does provide a legal basis for doing that.

Or you could try the “parallel means” approach. But that requires substantial resources and a long-term commitment. And the results have not been great. 

One thing you should not do is sit on a throne, hoping China’s workers are going to stop complaining.


ETI's blog covers issues at the intersection of business, news and ethical trade. We welcome a range of insights and opinions from our guest bloggers, though don't necessarily agree with everything they say.