Labour Market Changes, Labour Disputes and Social Cohesion in China
Jobs are important in maintaining social cohesion. Employment provides income, but also a sense of self-worth and a meeting place for social interactions that weave the social fabric. With over 200 million unemployed globally, the number of jobs created has taken centre stage, especially in countries hit hard by the economic crisis. And yet, labour relations have become tense in many parts of the world, including those still experiencing economic growth. In 2010, China witnessed a marked increase in strikes, labour disputes and even suicides in the workplace. Understanding the economic and institutional determinants of good labour relations matters for designing and implementing better labour market policies.The increase in labour disputes in China coincided with the end of the era of surplus labour. While labour was abundant in rural hinterlands, manufacturing firms could rely on cheap labour as migrant workers would still be better off than if they stayed at home. As it became increasingly difficult for manufacturing firms in urban centres and the coastal provinces to recruit labour, wages were bid up throughout the economy. This process however, was all but smooth, as the increase in labour disputes shows. What is needed is a set of labour market institutions that help the transition in labour markets to be not only efficient, but also peaceful and equitable.This paper by Cai Fan and Wang Meiyan, from the Institute of Population and Labour Economics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, documents the increase in labour disputes in China and seeks to understand their determinants. The main finding is that the increase in disputes is linked to a change in regime in the labour market with the end of surplus labour. The paper therefore calls for further advances in establishing labour market institutions to adapt to the new labour market situation. The paper finds that disputes result from a better awareness of rights on the part of workers and that they are more common in thriving and export-oriented areas. The authors go on to discuss the Chinese government’s responses to the growing problem, from pro-active labour market policy to increasing the importance of collective contracts. In doing so, this paper provides an important building block in the understanding of the role of labour market institutions for social cohesion.
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