Workers’ protests grow as Chinese economy falters

Social conflict and working class mobilisation in China are set to intensify as its once impressive economy decelerates and company profits decline. The past year recorded the slowest rate of growth at 7 per cent in more than two decades, and saw a stock market crash that tested the regime’s credibility for managing economic risks.

As the manufacturing industry weakens, the fragmented but explosive workers’ protest movement has reacted to a renewed wave of factory relocation and closure in the last two years, which in turn prompts the state to further restrict space for labour organising.

China’s export-oriented manufacturing sector, which has consistently sustained weakening global demand since the global financial crisis, has been steadily shedding jobs and capacity for several years. This is now compounded by the overcapacity and unprofitability of state-owned commodity producers such as steel and coal. Individual enterprises and now the national government are cutting productive capacity and laying off workers.

The result has been an upsurge of labour strife in multiple industrial sectors, and for the first time since the turn of century, in both state and non-state enterprises.

Over the last decade, the Chinese state has hoped to reform the state-affiliated unions to incorporate rural migrant workers in order to address grievances before they escalate into protests. But the failure of such reforms and the simultaneous rising tide of labour protest have led the authorities to go back to the deployment of repressive tactics.

And, failing to secure workers’ loyalty and fearing the strength of independent labour organising, the authorities heavily targeted community-based workers’ centers in the latest crackdown: since December last year, a number of labour activists from well-known workers’ centers have been detained and some charged for their role in assisting wildcat strikes.

But this has not deterred workers, who protest out of the desperation over unpaid wages, social insurance and severance compensation. Because of the legality and legitimacy of their claims, aggrieved workers will not be easy to stop. Nevertheless, the crackdown on workers’ centers and short-term detention of strike leaders does disrupt the networks of activists.

It has been six years since the wave of strikes sparked by the autoworkers in 2010, and two years since arguably the largest single private-sector strike at a footwear factory in 2014.

China’s working class movement finds itself in deteriorating economic conditions and a hostile political environment.

Freezing the minimum wage and decreasing social insurance contribution by provincial authorities in the last few months, all in the name of reducing business burdens, are back on the government’s agenda; there is even a hint of possible labor law reforms further down the road.

While these changes are threatening the social and economic gains workers made over the previous decade, the government recognises that any significant change to industrial relations and the labor legislations will be politically risky.

Beyond the manufacturing sector, the service sector not only employs more migrant workers as a percentage of the labor force, but has also come to share more in strikes. Sanitation workers and teachers, to name only two groups of workers, are among those who are taking action in pursuit of their rights.

So despite the political and economic conditions, the workers’ movement is growing and learning to organise. And that is why it is so alarming to the authorities.

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