Prof. Andreas Bieler and I have been awarded a grant of £275k by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for a project on ‘Globalisation, national transformation and workers’ rights: an analysis of Chinese labour within the global economy’ (RES-062-23-2777; full project proposal). The project starts to run from 1 October 2011. On this blog, I will regularly provide a discussion of empirical findings related to this project.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Collective Bargaining in China

According to China Labour Bulletin, nearly twelve of the recorded strikes in June this year in China were resolved by some form of collective bargaining. The analysis of China Labour Bulletin suggested that collective bargaining would be a possible solution for the upcoming labour disputes in China. This article is to document some observations I made while I was in China this summer working with Laowei labour law firm in Shenzhen. 

From my various interviews with Laowei’s representative lawyer, Mr. Duan Yi, I realised that in China, collective bargaining is actually a rather sensitive term: it would be better to use ‘collective negotiation’. This is because the term ‘bargaining’ has a slight implication of conflict, and now that the Chinese government places so much emphasis on the ‘harmonious society’, ‘bargaining’ is not preferred by the government; instead, ‘negotiation’ is the right term, on the government’s definition. However this is the very point that lawyer Duan strongly objected to. He emphasised that it is right precisely because the term ‘bargaining’ carries a slight implication of conflict: that’s how we could see the strength of the workers. According to him: If the workers are all obedient like sheep, they won’t stand up to fight for their rights. Workers have to realise that the economic power lies with themselves: if they are not satisfied with their working conditions, they should elect some workers’ representatives and start to bargain with their boss. His labour law firm, Laowei, is working hard on accepting workers’ requests if workers wish to have a collective bargaining arrangement with their bosses. They also hold many seminars and invite scholars from different parts of China to share their views about collective bargaining. Lawyer Duan firmly believes that China is just experiencing the same process of industrialisation as all other developed countries; therefore the industrial conflicts that occur during this process will also be resolved by collective bargaining, like in all other developed countries.

Turning to an American labour lawyer, Dr. Edward Medermott, who is also a labour law scholar at Salisbury University in the States, has stated that he firmly believes collective bargaining represents a preferred industrial relations model that incorporates the employees’ voice with a forum where the employees’ voice can be effectively exercised. Dr. Medermott says: Collective bargaining allows for an adversarial exchange of views etc. while also encouraging mutual problem solving. From my experience in the U.S., which is a unique model, the key to successful collective bargaining are skilled participants who manage this process for maximum outcome. I have seen poor outcomes caused by the poor skills of decision makers – sometimes on the management side and sometimes on the union side. However, the process has never disappointed me. Part of the collective bargaining process is the flexing of power between the parties, particularly in nascent collective bargaining relationships or where the external competitive environment has changed the internal dynamics of the union–management relationship. Thus, in China, which lags in the development of skilled collective bargaining practitioners, this skill gap presents a major developmental challenge. Also, China's existing labour contract law spells out the terms and conditions of employment so that bargaining is somewhat undermined. However, the great value of collective bargaining is the ability to mobilize the workforce to obtain more. Here, the strike weapon is particularly potent with employers who intend to stake a permanent foothold in China as that will structure the initial collective bargaining relationships so that it reaches standard. There are many different industrial relations models in the world and each nation will find the one that best fits its culture and situation in the world economy. Regulated collective bargaining in China, among skilled practitioners who understand mutual problem solving, with the parties' right to use economic weapons such as strikes after negotiation has failed, should stabilize long term industrial relations in China. It is often not a pretty process to watch – but it works. 

Meeting of cleaners on collective bargaining.
I am not a legal expert in training; however, from my observation of Chinese workers’ strikes, I would suggest that collective bargaining requires collective willingness. When I was in Shenzhen in June this year, I participated in an educational gathering with workers held by the Laowei law firm. Those workers are a group of community cleaners. Most of them are over fifty (because young people won’t take these ‘dirty’ jobs), many of them couldn’t even speak clear Mandarin (they have heavy local accents from different provinces). However, that gathering, from an outsider’s perspective, was quite successful. Spirits were high, everybody wanted to launch their complaints about their employers (the agency which assigned their work to that particular residential block). They demanded lawyers from Laowei to be their representatives in negotiations with their employer, to increase their wages. In fact, when I returned to Shenzhen in December, I followed up this case and discovered that it was still under negotiation, without much of a clear result. Nevertheless, what struck me deeply in June about those elder cleaners’ coherent demands is that they did reach a ‘collective willingness’ at that point. 

In many ways, strikes in China appear to have more of a ‘wild-cat’ nature. Workers are brave to strike, but usually it’s difficult for them to reach an agreement among themselves and then to discuss with the boss what they really want. No matter how skilful the negotiators may be, I think the only key to successful collective bargaining is for workers to have a united voice.


  1. informative post! I really like and appreciate your work, thank you for sharing such a useful facts and information about collective bargaining strategies, keep updating the blog, hear i prefer some more information about jobs for your career hr jobs in hyderabad .

  2. “Sometimes I feel like if you just watch things, just sit still and let the world exist in front of you - sometimes I swear that just for a second time freezes and the world pauses in its tilt. Just for a second. And if you somehow found a way to live in that second, then you would live forever.” immigration business plan