Work and Workplaces in the ‘New Era’: Labour Issues at the 19th Party Congress

P. K. Anand, PhD, Research Associate, ICS

In the week preceding the beginning of the 19th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), state-run media trumpeted the increase in minimum wage levels in 17 regions & cities in China in 2017. Out of these, four major cities namely, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Tianjin, have set the minimum wage levels at 2,000 RMB per month. The increase in the minimum wage levels does not carry a linear narrative, however. Some provinces have expressed reluctance to implement minimum wages, wages are also not commensurate with rising house rents, increasing costs of travel from home to the workplace, etc. On the other hand, the increase in wages also adds to the rising labour costs for investors and enterprise managements. In this scenario, the Party-state has the task of striking a fine balance between maintaining economic growth and encouraging investments, while also increasing the material wealth and ensuring the well-being of the workforce.

Xi Jinping’s political report to the 19th Party Congress is reflective of the apprehensions and disquiet of the Party-state in the need to undertake this balancing act – his thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era states that the principal contradiction is ‘between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life’, marking a shift from the earlier pronouncement of ‘the ever-growing material and cultural needs of the people and backward social production’; income inequality in the country’s workforce is among the main challenges confronting present-day China.

Apart from a few specific references under the head of Strengthening Social Security, from the perspective of labour relations, two main talking points can be identified in Xi’s report. The first one falls under the domain of advancement of law-based governance, pertaining to the promotion of rule of law. Xi states:

‘we will build a rule of law government, promote law-based government administration, and see that law is enforced in a strict, procedure-based, impartial and non-abusive way.’

Beginning from the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao era, China has taken the route of legislations for addressing challenges posed in the labour arena. In addition to the deft use of the ‘left’ – wage, welfare and other related concessions – and ‘right’ hands – use of repressive measures to end labour protests, arrest leaders/activists and censor NGOs – by the Party-state,[1] introduction of laws like the Labour Contract Law, Law of Labour Dispute Mediation and Arbitration, and Law of Employment Promotion promulgated in 2008, along with the Law on Social Security in 2011, were rules-based responses to provide employment and welfare rights as well as to channelize grievances and settle disputes ‘amicably’. While the adoption of these laws signify the party-state’s determination to pave the way for a regime of rule of law, legal solutions are aimed at ensuring ‘peaceful’, ‘conflict-free’ workplaces. The legal absorption of labour conflicts while individualizing workers’ demands and concerns, however aims to discourage the emergence of collective, class-based solidarities. A point of reference in this regard is the gradual marginalization of collective bargaining, an important negotiating instrument between the employers and a representative group of the workers in an enterprise, with the aim of concluding agreements for enhanced payments and improved working conditions. Over time, this mechanism’s vocabulary has changed – with ‘collective consultation’ (jiti xieshang) replacing ‘collective bargaining’ (jiti tanpan) – to find a ‘harmonious’ middle ground, and avoid the ‘aggressiveness’ usually associated with workers’ rights. The renewed emphasis on law-based governance does hint at further individualization of the grievance redressal and dispute settlement.

The second talking point is related to the aim of making China, ‘a country of innovators’. Opening the frontiers of scientific research and fostering a culture of innovation has been emphasized by Xi in his report. As part of the Made in China 2025 initiative, robotics has become a focal point – plans are in place to produce 100,000 industrial robots a year and having 150 robots in operation for every 10,000 employees by 2020. To offset labour costs, industrial centres in south China have already started experimenting with robots on the assembly lines. While advanced production with cutting-edge technology and less dependence on human labour might be the stated intentions, the adoption of automation changes the dynamics of labour relations and leaves behind unaswered questions for workers – will there be complete shunting of the workers or will some human element still be retained in the manufacturing sector? Will human capacities be completely lost? How are workers losing jobs going to be rehabilitated? The Party-state has not been able to answer these questions in concrete terms.

Another area identified for improvement with regard to workers in the report is augmenting the responsibility system for workplace safety. Workplace accidents have been a common feature in the country, with estimates putting the average rate of accidents at 135 per day and 75 deaths each day. The rate of accidents calls for proper safety measures being adopted and practiced, in addition to professional training being imparted to the workers.

However, there are areas of relevance in the labour arena which have not necessaily been covered in Xi Jinping’s report. Emergence of new forms of casual and informal work arrangements – forced student internships, for example – in factories makes Chinese labour relations fluid and dynamic. Xi’s statement calling for ‘an educated, skilled and innovative workforce’, fostering ‘respect for model workers’, promoting ‘quality workmanship’ and ensuring ‘pride in labour’, and valuing ‘excellence as a good work ethic’, indicates the need for a new kind of workforce. However, given the rise in frequency of workers’ protests – including work spaces in the service sector – and the challenges they throw up, the new workforce is dependent on the Party-state being more sophisticated and able to resolve demands and grievances by instituting proper mechanisms.

A more peaceful and harmonious workplace in China can materialize only by providing at least a modicum of operative and representative space for workers in a collective setting.

NOTE

[1] The analogy of the left and right hands of the state has been borrowed from the reference used by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. For more, see: http://www.variant.org.uk/32texts/bourdieu32.html

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