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AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere in search of cheaper workers, anxious and angry personnel are becoming ever bolshier. In accordance with China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the amount of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to over 1,300. Over the last quarter they rose threefold year-on-year, with factory workers, taxi drivers and teachers across the country demanding better treatment.

The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. But in areas, they have also begun to give state-controlled unions more capacity to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to find out a desire to placate workers, too.

Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations have to be affiliated with their state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), whose constitution describes the working class as “the leading class of China” but which usually sides with management. Lately, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, specifically in privately run factories where they fear an absence of unions might encourage independent ones to increase. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.

New regulations in the southern province of Guangdong, the location of a lot of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and a lot of of the strikes (see map), might start to change that. They codify the correct of workers to engage in collective bargaining; that is certainly, to negotiate their regards to employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The rules utilize the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational than the usual term. But, on paper a minimum of, they provide the official unions greater power to initiate negotiations with management instead of, as in past times, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.

Meng Han, strike security companies in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, will have welcomed a far more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was published a year ago after nine months in jail to take matters into his very own hands and leading a protest sought after of higher wages. “China’s unions do not are part of the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The newest rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who happen to be hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies ought to be paid exactly like permanent staff (they commonly are paid much less). The regulations say there should be “equal buy equal work”.

Guangdong’s aim is just not to embolden workers, but to have their grievances from erupting into open protest that may turn versus the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control several of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the new rules, fearing they will lead to even higher labour costs. Wages happen to be rising fast, partly because of shortage of migrant labour. However the government is less inclined than it once ended up being to heed such concerns. This has been raising minimum-wage levels, among its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The brand new rules may help accomplish this too.

Employers have won some concessions. Drafters of the new rules dropped provisions which could have fined companies for resisting workers’ efforts to bargain collectively and which will have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages due to management’s refusal to negotiate with workers’ representatives. The regulations require more than half of your company’s workers to support collective-bargaining before such action can start. Drafts had called for thresholds of only one-third or less.

The regulations effectively shut the doorway to the level of spontaneously-formed categories of workers that have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions underneath the ACFTU.

But by taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also dealing with higher risk, says Aaron Halegua of New York University. He believes workers will probably improve pressure in the official unions to represent them better; once they fail, workers could switch on the unions along with factory bosses. The brand new rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the protection guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, many individuals were afraid even going to mention the saying. “Now it is actually used constantly. To ensure is a few progress.”