How Chinese workers are starting to assert their rights

  • China’s workers are shaking off the mantle of individual victims and emerging as a strong, unified and increasingly active collective force.
  • They are focused on basic social and economic rights; earning a living wage, creating a safe work environment and being treated with dignity and respect by the employer.
  • All too often, however, workers are confronted with authoritarian and exploitative managements who deny them even these basic entitlements and as such conflicts inevitably erupt.
  • Strikes are often precipitated and aggravated by the lack of an effective factory trade union and the absence of any mechanism for constructive dialogue between workers and management.
  • Many worker protests were ignited by the closure, merger or relocation of factories in Guangdong as the global economic slowdown adversely affected China’s manufacturing industries. Some 40 percent of the strikes recorded by China Labour Bulletin from mid-2011 to the end of 2013 were in the manufacturing sector.
  • Workers in the transport sector accounted for 26 percent of the strikes in this period, with taxi drivers staging regular protests across the entire country against high costs, government regulation and unfair completion.
  • Teachers staged protests at wage arrears, low pay and attempts by the government to introduce a performance-based pay system in schools.
  • Sanitation workers, some of poorest-paid in China, staged numerous strikes and protests in Guangzhou and eventually won a wage increase although the majority are still far from satisfied with their pay and conditions.
  • The ability of workers to organize protests was considerably enhanced by the rapid development of social media in China and the widespread availability of cheap smartphones.
  • However, workers’ leaders still face widespread resistance from and retaliation by managements. Many workers were sacked or forced to resign in the wake of their strike action.
  • Local authorities in China continued to intervene in strikes and worker protests, trying to affect a resolution as quickly as possible by acting as a broker or mediator between workers and managements.
  • Police intervened in about 20 percent of the strikes recorded in this period and conflicts sometimes arose leading to beatings and arrests.
  • Some municipal and provincial trade union federations did respond favourably to workers’ actions but despite attempts by the Party to energise the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, it remained inert and stuck in the past.
  • Labour rights groups, especially those in Guangdong, emerged to play the role a union should be playing, supporting workers in their struggle with management, helping them to conduct collective bargaining and maintaining unity and solidarity.

These are the headline messages from China Labour Bulletin’s new research report on the workers’ movement, published today,


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