What Sort of Collective Bargaining Is Emerging in China?

AuthorWilliam Brown,Chang‐Hee Lee,Xiaoyi Wen
Publication Date01 Mar 2016
What Sort of Collective Bargaining
Is Emerging in China?
Chang-Hee Lee, William Brown and Xiaoyi Wen
China is experiencing a rapid expansion of what is termed ‘collective bargain-
ing’. The article draws on workplace and sectoral examples to assess what
underlies this. Recent changes in labour policy are outlined. Four studies at
establishment level describe the use of hybrid representation in response to
growing worker activism and internal union reform. Two studies of sectoral
bargaining shed light on decentralized decision-making on pay. Attention is
drawn to the growth of employer organizations and increased articulation
within the trade union. A form of collective bargaining is emerging where the
union draws on state power to improve conditions of employment.
1. Introduction
After three decades of rapid transition from a centrally planned to a ‘socialist
market’ economy, the promotion of ‘collective bargaining’ has become a key
pillar of China’s social and labour policy.1Two hundred and twenty-three
million workers are said to have been covered by collective contracts in 2011,
although the notion of collective bargaining was virtually unknown till the
early 1990s. What does this mean? At a time when collective bargaining has
been in retreat throughout the market economies of the developed world,
why has building it become a priority in China? What sort of collective
bargaining is emerging in the world’s second largest economy?
The notion of the labour market first entered China’s policy lexicon in the
early 1990s when the government started to dismantle the socialist employ-
ment regime in the state sector while allowing an unregulated movement of
rural migrant workers into urban labour markets. At that time, there were no
such institutions as collective bargaining, minimum wages, employers’ asso-
ciations or even national labour laws. While ‘trade unions’ existed in the form
Chang-Hee Lee is at the International Labour Organization. William Brown is at Cambridge
University. Xiaoyi Wen is at the China Institute of Industrial Relations.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd/London School of Economics. Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd,
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
British Journal of Industrial Relations
54:1 March 2016 0007–1080 pp. 214–236
doi: 10.1111/bjir.12109
of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), they served as no
more than a transmission belt for state policy and as the administrators of
welfare at the workplace.
By the early 2010s, however, China had developed a new range of labour
market institutions. This was in response to rising social conflict in the early
2000s and subsequently to the global economic crisis in the late 2000s.
Reform and expansion of industrial relations institutions, including collec-
tive bargaining, at various levels of the economy has been designed to ‘har-
monize labour relations’ and to ‘rebalance the economy’. Reversing the
deregulation drive of the 1990s, China has now moved to re-regulate labour.
The most notable example is the Labour Contract Law of 2008.
But serious challenges remain. Income inequality remains at a high level,
although there is evidence that the level of inequality may have peaked
around 2008 (China Development and Research Foundation 2013). The
integration of rural migrant workers is far from complete. There has been a
proliferation of irregular working arrangements, notably temporary agency
More importantly, there remains a big question about the nature and
effectiveness of what is translated into English as ‘collective bargaining’
(jitixieshang).2Does the expansion of ‘collective bargaining’, pushed from the
top by the ACFTU, bring changes to relations among workers, trade unions
and employers at the workplace level? Does it have an influence in determin-
ing wages and other working conditions? What is the nature of workplace
democracy, if any, and can it accommodate the voices and aspirations of a
new generation of workers? These are important issues at a time when the
rising level of collective action by young migrant workers is testing the
boundaries of the existing industrial relations arrangements.
We start by commenting on the variety of collective bargaining arrange-
ments in developed economies as a basis for judging what may be emerging
in China. The article then summarizes the emergence of Chinese policy and
the evidence provided by official data on the development of collective bar-
gaining. Field studies by the authors are used to explore whether and how
this is manifest on the ground and the processes that appear to be underway.
It concludes with what this suggests about institutional development in
2. The role of the state in collective bargaining
Collective bargaining has been subject to varied interpretations. Anglo-
Saxon theorists tended to focus on workers and their organizations, and on
employers and managers, often treating the state as peripheral. This reflected
a pluralist tradition where the state tends to play a passive role. For the
Webbs, who originated the term, it was an alternative to individual bargain-
ing, for fixing the principles on which labour should be engaged (Webb and
Webb 1897). Later analysts argued that it was also a form of industrial
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd/London School of Economics.
Collective Bargaining in China 215

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