Article in the China Labour Bulletin analyses upcoming changes in China's labour regulations. A crucial turning point in the history of China's trade union movement may have been reached. For the first time since 1949, trade union officials are openly stating that the union should represent the workers and no one else, while new legislation in Shenzhen places collective bargaining – previously a no-go area – at the core of the union's work.

"The trade union is a matter for the workers themselves," Chen Weiguang, chairman of the Guangzhou Federation of Trade Unions told a conference on 15 July 2008, adding that the role of enterprise unions must change from "persuading the boss" to "mobilizing the workers."

Shenzhen's Implementing Regulations (Shishi Banfa) for the Trade Union Law, enacted on 1 August, further define the union's new role, creating a "responsible, empowered and battle-ready union" that can protect workers' rights, according to Zhang Youquan, head of the Shenzhen Federation's legal department. Zhang told a press conference to announce the new regulations that this was the first time the term "collective bargaining" (jiti tanpan), as opposed to the previously-used but much weaker concept of "collective consultations" (jiti xieshang) had been applied in China's local legislation.

As the experience of the labour movement in many other countries has shown, collective bargaining is the most effective way to protect workers' rights and bolster the role of the trade union. Above all, it is a means of resolving labour disputes through peaceful social dialogue. Such an approach is sorely needed in China today, and China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang congratulated the Shenzhen authorities on this important new initiative:

"After three decades of economic reform, we've reached the point when something had to be done. Today in Shenzhen we can see the worst excesses of capitalism, but also the desire of the people for social justice and – with these new regulations – the willingness of the government to move towards capitalism with a human face."

Han pointed out that although the new legislation was "state-directed" reform, it would still have a positive effect if it enabled workers to engage in genuine collective bargaining. "At present, the most pressing need for the official union is independence from the bosses," he said.

Significantly, the whole of chapter three of the Implementing Regulations (The Rights and Obligations of Trade Unions) does not contain a single reference to the traditional tasks outlined in the 2001 Trade Union Law, such as helping the enterprise to restore normal production in the event of a work stoppage or slowdown. Rather the regulations make it very clear that during a labour dispute the role of the trade union is to represent workers in negotiations with management. Moreover, for the first time in China, the regulations (Article 36) stipulate that grassroots trade union officials should receive a small monthly subsidy from the municipal federation that will go some way toward lessening union officials' dependence on the enterprise for their operating funds.

Article 18 (Paragraph 3), Articles 27 to 31 inclusive, Article 44 and Article 45 all stress that collective bargaining is the core responsibility of trade unions and provide clear guidelines on how the process should work. These provisions effectively transform collective bargaining in China from a vague concept into, potentially, a genuine right that can be utilized by ordinary workers to improve their terms and conditions of employment.

Of course, the regulations are far from perfect; they still emphasize the supervision or control (jiandu) of grassroots unions by higher-level unions, rather than a system of mutual supervision. Article 11, for example, specifies that workplace union officials will be elected by the union committee only after a list of candidates drawn up by the committee has been approved by the higher-level union. Also, grassroots unions still need the approval of higher-level unions before they can officially register, and there is no mechanism by which lower-level officials can supervise or control irresponsible higher-level union officials.

However, the Implementing Regulations – together with the Shenzhen Labour Relations Regulations, due to go into force at the end of September – have effectively opened the door for the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions to transform itself into a much more effective representative of workers' rights and interests.

Han Dongfang said: "We hope the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions can take practical steps to create a successful bargaining model that others can follow, thereby making collective bargaining a key part of China's emerging civil society."

Han stressed that change will not happen overnight but, step by step, progress is already being made. And in retrospect, 2008 may well turn out to be one of the most important years in the history of China's trade union movement.

"Earlier this year, we saw the implementation of three new national labour laws, and now we have the introduction of collective bargaining in Shenzhen. This has all come from two factors: the growing determination of Chinese workers to stand up for their rights, and the government's willingness to respond in a practical and positive manner,” he said.

See also CLB research report: Breaking the Impasse: Promoting Worker Involvement in the Collective Bargaining and Contracts Process, and  Collective Bargaining and the New Labour Contract Law.

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