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The name gives no hint of the revolutionary changes afoot for mainland workers. Yet the proposed Regulations on the Democratic Management of Enterprises, now being debated by the Guangdong Provincial People's Congress, could give Chinese labor the ultimate—and until now taboo—bargaining tool: an officially sanctioned right to strike. "This has been a no-go area in China for decades," says Robin Munro, deputy director at the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. All Chinese workers belong to one union, but it wields little power. "This is the first time ever Chinese authorities have said it is O.K. to strike."
The draft law could take effect by this fall in Guangdong, the industrialized coastal province where Honda (HMC) workers in June illegally and successfully struck for higher wages. The proposed law is seen by many activists and researchers as a trial balloon before a possible national rollout. The rules: If one-fifth or more of a company's staff demands collective bargaining, then management must discuss workers' grievances. Before talks begin, the union must elect local worker representatives. Until now, union reps came from management ranks.
The next section of the proposed law ventures into even more radical territory. For six decades, picketing and disrupting production have been illegal and subject to harsh punishment. Under the Guangdong proposal, as long as workers first try negotiating and refrain from violence, they're allowed to strike.
Though the draft could still get watered down, the fact that officials are even considering legalizing strikes signals a sea change. The party's moves are an attempt to recognize—and regulate—what is already happening. "Every month there are hundreds of strikes," says Chang Kai, a labor relations professor at Renmin University of China who advised the Honda workers. "What the government is concerned about is whether it can control these strikes or not." Formalizing workers' rights could also advance China's goal of rebalancing the economy. "There is a new emphasis on how to reduce the wage gap and get consumers to spend more," says Chang-Hee Lee, an industrial relations expert at the International Labour Organization's Beijing office. "This is not very easy to accomplish unless workers have more bargaining power."
The bottom line: A proposed law being debated in Guangdong could greatly strengthen the bargaining power of Chinese workers.