Opening ceremony of 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China
Top Chinese officials are growing uneasy about an uptick in labor unrest. In this photo, the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing. Reuters

Amid mounting labor tensions in China, top Communist Party officials are calling on authorities to “make the construction of harmonious labor relations an urgent task” and to ensure “healthy economic development.” A recent government directive to that effect, reported by the Wall Street Journal, was short on specifics, but emblematic of growing government concern over worker unrest.

As economic growth slows in China, labor struggles are multiplying, and many of the disputes have been led by migrant workers who provide the low-wage backbone to the nation’s export-driven growth. Workers have gone on strike at a rate that has doubled each of the past four years, from 185 in 2011 to more than 1,300 in 2014, according to the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. The government does not publish data on work stoppages.

The recent protest tide has flouted the official structures designed to manage labor relations: The state-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions remains the officially Communist state’s only recognized union, collective bargaining rights are limited and workers do not have a guaranteed right to strike. But independent worker centers, labor-oriented NGOs and Internet communications have helped fuel organizing efforts.

Observers say the new directive -- while reflective of the Chinese leadership's unease -- does little to alter the government's top-down approach to industrial relations or encourage the recognition of independent labor organizations.

“While this paper suggests that the authorities are taking labor tensions more seriously, it doesn’t necessarily mean major changes on the ground,” He Yuancheng, an editor for a website that covers labor issues, told WSJ.

Just last month, 5,000 workers went on a strike at a factory in the southern industrial city of Dongguan that produces shoes for Nike, Timberland and Kenneth Cole.