Collective bargaining regulations aim to channel worker grievances into a company-specific negotiation and forestall so-called "wildcat" strikes. But the regulations still lack protection for workers if talks break down.
"It's hard for workers to really press their demands without mandatory arbitration or a strike," says Jonathan Isaacs, special counsel with responsibility for Chinese employment and labour issues at law firm Baker & McKenzie in Hong Kong. Workers who take part in collective bargaining have been fired, says He Yuancheng, editor of the Collective Bargaining Forum website.
Chinese law doesn't protect workers' right to strike, leaving them vulnerable both to dismissal by their employer and to police charges. When worker protests spill out of factory gates onto the streets, workers risk being charged with disrupting public order and detention.
Action, without action
Two of China's most prominent labour cases this year involve this charge. A judge in Guangzhou this week found 12 hospital security guards guilty of "gathering a crowd to disrupt social order". The guards had threatened to jump off the roof of the hospital where they worked after they were cut out of a settlement with hospital management over compensation.
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Earlier this month, a Shenzhen court convened a second hearing in the case of a former furniture factory employee who joined a May 2013 protest about management's refusal to discuss compensation for workers affected by the factory's impending closure and relocation.
As a result, industrial action in China doesn't always involve much action.
At the Samsung SDI plant in an industrial area of Shanghai, where workers declared a strike last week, staff in white uniform jackets played basketball and badminton on the factory grounds while others thumbed their mobile phones under purple wisteria arbours, their hair tucked neatly under white factory caps.
The tranquil protest was a response to the battery factory's announcement of a 5 percent pay rise and, workers said in an online post, rumours that the plant was closing and moving to Vietnam. Employees said they demanded a doubling of their salary. Chen Guoyu, the factory's deputy general manager, told Reuters this was a negotiation over wages, not a strike, and no decision had been taken to close the factory. Last weekend, workers settled for a 10 percent raise and a bonus, said one employee, who asked not to be identified. If the factory closed, "we'll probably have to make a fuss again," the worker wrote in a text message.
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Senior management has taken note of workers' growing sensitivity, and can use it to their advantage. When facilities are sold, senior managers sometimes goad assembly line workers to protest, using that disruption as leverage to improve their own severance packages, lawyers said.
The upshot for companies restructuring their operations in China is that paying the legally required compensation is just the beginning.
Communication is crucial, lawyers and activists say.
"The vast majority of these disputes could be resolved beforehand if management had bothered to explain what was going on to the workers, rather than just presenting them with an ultimatum," said Geoffrey Crothall, communications director at China Labor Bulletin.