Below is my translation of a Caixin piece summarizing a report on how protests by Chinese migrant workers (sometimes involving gangs), are pushing reforms to China’s government-controlled labor unions. The original report was done by sociology researchers at Tsinghua University in partnership with the China Youth Development Foundation (中国青少年发展基金会).
The usual disclaimers apply: I’m not a professional translator and I’d love to hear suggestions for improvement. I’ve inserted the original Chinese where useful or where I’m unsure, and pasted the original text below. The original Caixin piece was by intern reporter Liu Jiaying (刘佳英); I can’t find the original Tsinghua report online, so please let me know if you do.
Report: Collective Actions by Migrant Workers Drive Union Reforms
As industrialization and urbanization gain momentum, strikes by migrant workers continue to make the news. Recently a report by a Tsinghua University task force indicated that the new generation of migrant workers are expressing a strong desire to organize, and they’re using collective protest actions (体抗议等行为) to push forward reforms to collective bargaining and democratic elections at low-level unions. However, under the current union system, it’s very difficult for unions to represent the demands of migrant workers.
The report was jointly produced by Tsinghua University’s Department of Sociology and the China Youth Development Fund. Tsinghua sociology professor Shen Yuan (沈原) and Ph.D. Wang Jianhua (汪建华) together with other researchers used field research in the Pearl River Delta as well as large survey samples from Tsinghua University’s “New Generation Migrant Worker Research” (清华大学“新生代农民工研究”大样本抽样调查数据). Their research revealed new trends in the organization of migrant workers born after 1980, as well as the impact of these trends on reforms to unions.
The reported indicated that with employers effectively breaking up the interpersonal networks of this new generation of migrant workers, workers have been forced into a state of “atomization,” (原子化) making attempts to seek help from unions and other official organizations futile. Instead, workers rely on gangs (帮派）and other unofficial power centers in carrying out collective protest, demanding the creation of “democratic” unions capable representing the workers’ interests. Although this has driven reforms to some low-level unions, it has yet to create a stable and reliable mechanism to represent the interests of migrant workers.
Gangs enter migrant worker protests
Different from their predecessors, the new generation of migrant workers place greater emphasis on relationships among co-workers. The older generation of migrant workers primarily sought advice from relatives, kinship networks, and people from their hometown. However, when members of the new generation of migrant workers encounter problems, 40.7% will choose to first discuss the problem with friends, a 19.5% increase over the older generation. In addition, 25.1% of the new generation see their classmates and co-workers as their primary cell phone contacts, a 14.2% increase over the older generation.
These changes are connected to the educational experiences of the new generations. The report showed that 53.7% of the new generation of migrant workers received some middle or high school education. 40.2% directly entered the workforce upon graduation, with 6.6% being placed in a company by their school. Particularly for those workers who were recruited as part of “student work groups,” (学生工群体) co-worker networks are increasingly more important than traditional kinship or regional networks.
However, the existing structures of production that migrant workers interact with (现行的“农民工生产体制”) constantly weaken co-worker networks, forcing them to seek help in gangs, “local toughs” (混混团体, really don’t know how to translate that) and other unofficial groups. The report states that the transient nature of living accommodations, the widespread use of worker placement groups, the staggering of workers’ work-rest shifts, and other structural arrangements limit socializing and group unity. This forces workers into a situation where they are “atomized” and separated, generating strong feelings of frustration.
This has only strengthened the demand of the new generation of migrant workers to organize. In addition to committing suicide by jumping off buildings and seeking vengeance outside of the workplace, workers rely on the strength of gangs in collective protest, demanding democratic union elections and collective bargaining. As an example, the report cites the 2011 riots in the Guangdong city of Zengcheng: members of Sichuan gangs (川籍帮派) were mobilized, overturning police cars and destroying stores, among other violent acts.
Limitations on reforms to low-level unions
Under pressure from the increasing number of collective protests by migrant workers, a portion of low-level unions have pushed reforms for democratic elections and collective bargaining in their area of jurisdiction. The report cites Shenzhen as an example of such reforms: in 2012 the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions (深圳市总工会) pushed 163 low-level unions to directly elect union chairpersons. Guangdong province and Xinzhou district in the city of Dalian also executed reforms following collective actions by migrant workers.
Despite these moves, the current system of unions has made it exceedingly difficult for reforms to move forward. The report argues that China’s company unions (企业工会) are organizations for protecting rights in name only (具有“形式化维权”的本质). The administrative structure means that low-level unions are controlled by higher-tier unions, and union representatives are frequently company managers. Because of this, reforms to low-level unions will never push beyond the limitations set by the union system and higher-tier unions. In this system, it remains difficult for low-level unions to change their fundamental function: as a “buffer” to defuse the contradictions between labor and capital (难以摆脱缓解劳资矛盾的“缓冲器”这一基本定位).
In addition, the loss of the “right to strike” limits reforms to low-level unions. The report argues that without the legal right to strike, low-level unions will never gain individual strength and or turn into leaders in collective actions by workers. Reforms advanced by the government and higher-tier unions remain essentially an attempt to dissipate collective protest by migrant workers, contributing to the goal of “social stability.”
The report states that only when the demands of the new generation of migrant workers are both recognized and respected, when channels are opened for effective protection of worker rights by unions, will the contradictions between labor and capital be eased and social stability protected. Overlooking or even suppressing the demands of migrant workers to organize will only force them to rely further on gangs and other unofficial sources of power, leading to more violent and disruptive forms of collective protest.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics’ 2013 “National Migrant Worker Monitor and Survey Report,” China already has approximately 269 million migrant workers. The new generation of migrant workers make up 46.6% of that total and primarily cluster in the eastern part of the country and in major cities.