Over the past decade, China has been an attractive destination for global corporations due to its low wage rates and labor laws that disallow independent trade unions and limit the right to strike. Recently, Chinese industrial workers have been pushing back, demanding better wages, hours and working conditions. Collective action by Chinese workers, including strikes, has been successful in many cases and is bringing Chinese employers to the bargaining table As a result, China’s industrial workers are fashioning their own system of industrial relations, largely without the assistance of the existing law and labor relations institutions.
But China does not yet meet international labor law standards. Workers cannot freely choose their collective bargaining representatives and lack laws requiring employers to collectively bargain with employees. Most workers in China’s factories, mines, mills, warehouses, docks and transport hubs still have little or no say in selecting their union representatives, and no means, short of stopping work, to bring recalcitrant employers into direct negotiations over industrial grievances. In 2010, in analyzing China’s progress toward ensuring its citizens enjoy fundamental labor rights, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) wrote:
“Workers do not have the right to organize in trade unions of their choice. Legal trade unions have to be affiliated to the ACFTU and accept its control. Although there have been some efforts to establish collective wage consultation systems, the right to collective bargaining is restricted as is the right to strike, both in law and in practice. The lack of proper representation is reflected in the number of protests and labor disputes that have been rising over the years.”
Despite the inadequacies of Chinese law, the government sometimes now allows strikes and plant-level collective bargaining. The government has also enacted improvements in workers’ rights in the past few years (for example, the 2008 Employee Contract Law), and created a policy favoring widespread “collective consultation” over wages and working conditions. As a result, Chinese industrial wages are rising—a good thing for both Chinese working families and for workers in other countries that compete with China in a variety of industries. For too long, the wages of Chinese workers have been suppressed due to the lack of freedom of association. Wages would be higher and rising faster if the Chinese government secured the fundamental freedoms of association and collective bargaining for its citizens. The AFL-CIO will continue to work with allies to raise these critical issues with the Chinese and American governments and fight for the freedom of Chinese workers to exercise their basic human rights.