SHANGHAI - Collective contracts as part of an effective negotiation mechanism between workers and employers will help mitigate labor unrests that have hit parts of the country recently, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) said on Thursday.
"The signing of collective contracts is key to protecting workers' rights as it ... provides a legal framework for them to negotiate with employers," ACFTU spokesman Li Shouzhen said at a seminar.
The channel gives workers greater bargaining power and will allow them to seek higher wages as well as have their rights better protected, without them having to go on strikes or taking other extreme measures, Li said.
But legislation will be needed first to make it mandatory for enterprises to set up such a mechanism, which is still lacking at most small and medium-sized enterprises, he said.
Currently, there is no law in China requiring companies to sign collective contracts with their employees, which explains why there is little incentive for enterprises to do so.
"But if we made it mandatory and stepped up punishment for violators, I think workers would be placed in a much stronger position," Li said.
In recent weeks, workers from auto parts makers and other manufacturers in China, mostly foreign-owned, have gone on strike to demand higher pay, citing wages that have not kept up with rising prices or profits.
Workers in a Honda engine gear factory in Guangdong province won a 24-percent wage hike after a two-week strike last month. Following that, Toyota, the world's largest automaker, also agreed to discuss wage increases with workers who went on strike at an assembly plant in Tianjin last month.
The world's largest contract electronics manufacturer, Foxconn Technology Group, doubled employees' basic salary after a spate of worker suicides in its Shenzhen factories in Guangdong.
Amid the wave of strikes and suicides, the national trade union has been criticized in the media for not doing enough to help protect workers' rights and improve their wages or working conditions.
Li said the ACFTU is strengthening training for grassroots labor union leaders to help them implement rules and regulations to protect workers' rights.
But labor unions in China function in a highly problematic way, which explains why they have mostly failed to address workers' woes, said Li Xiaoping, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Public Administration and Human Resources.
Unlike their Western counterparts, which are independent of management, China's labor unions get most of the funds from their companies, Li Xiaoping said.
"That undermines the independence of labor unions, whose leaders find themselves in an awkward position. While they are supposed to defend workers' rights, they do not dare offend company management that pays their salaries," he said.
Li Xiaoping suggested that authorities appoint a third, independent body to act as the labor union and represent the rights of the workers effectively.
"Meanwhile, there should be a variety of channels for workers to seek help, such as the government's labor departments and legal institutions offering free legal aid," he said.
China has 1.7 million grassroots labor unions. Li Xiaoping said they could play their part to deal with workers' complaints and protect their rights as long as the system makes an urgent revamp to ensure efficiency.
"Promoting collective contracts is a possible initiative," he said.