Representation without Trade Unions The Emergence of Worker Representatives in Collective Bargaining in Guangdong

  • CHEN, Feng (PI)

Project: Research project

Project Details


In western market economies, collective bargaining is voluntarily conducted between trade unions and employers, without government intervention. Union organizations represent workers and bargain with the workers’ employers for the terms and conditions of employment. The failure to reach an agreement is likely to lead to a strike. However, as Chinese trade unions are unable to represent workers, and workers themselves are virtually unorganized, who represents workers during bargaining with employers? How is bargaining actually conducted in the absence of union representation? Evidence shows that, in more and more factories in Guangdong, workers are electing their own representatives to negotiate with employers. These “worker representatives” (WRs) are becoming de facto “bargaining units” on labor’s behalf.

Treating the WR as a new model of labor conflict resolution in China, this project aims to examine the context, formation, and processes of the WR and the effects it has had on both the labor movement and labor relations in China. Specifically, it seeks to address the following questions: How can the emergence of WRs be explained? What are the legal foundations of the WR? What role have WRs played in strikes and CB? How do WRs interact with employers? What are local governments’ and trade unions’ responses to WRs? To what extent have WRs affected the outcomes of collective bargaining?

The proposed project aims to accomplish the following goals:

To examine both the socioeconomic and legal contexts under which the WR emerges, and to explain why this new model of labor conflict resolution has spread in the PDR.

To explore the formation and role of WRs—how WRs are elected, who are the people who stand out in order to become WRs, how WRs represent workers’ demands, and what consequences they may face as WRs.

To explore what changes the WR has brought to the process of conflict resolution in workplaces and what new rules are generated with the entry of WRs in workplace labor relations.

To investigate the attitudes of local governments and trade unions toward the WR and explain why their responses vary from endorsing and accommodating to suppressing WRs.

The project is designed to contribute to our understanding of the new development of labor dispute resolutions, state-labor relations, and the labor movement in China.
Effective start/end date1/01/1731/08/20

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


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