Summary of Workers Protests in November 2003

Each month, China Labour Bulletin monitors and investigates numerous cases of worker unrest and protest from all over China. These incidents range from low-level complaints about wage arrears or working conditions; to lawsuits against employers or collective petitions to the local government and labour bureaus; to major industrial slow-downs, strikes or public demonstrations by workers and their families. Wherever possible, China Labour Bulletin tries to interview representatives of all the various parties involved in these disputes – including the workers and their families, enterprise or management officials, local trade union (ACFTU) representatives, and local government officials.


The following is the first of what will become a regular series of news updates from China Labour Bulletin, presenting selected summaries of recent major cases of worker unrest that we have monitored, and based on our direct interviews with the workers and other people concerned. The complete audio files of most of these telephone interviews, together with full English translations of selected interviews, can be found on our website. (Please note that there will usually be a delay of about a week before the English transcripts become available.) We hope you will find this new series of worker action reports useful and informative.


1,000 Taxi-owners strike in Dazhou, Sichuan Province


Some 1,000 taxi-owners and drivers in Dazhou have been on strike since 24 November and no taxi has been operating in the city since then. The strike is in response to the local government’s recent move to cancel all existing tax driver permits (Taxi Operation Certificates – TOCs) and re-sell them at a higher price through an auction. The government is not planning to pay any form of compensation for the rescinded certificates, most of which cost around 100,000 Yuan. Also of concern is the government order that taxi-owners switch to using another newer [and more expensive] brand of automobile. Some 800 taxi-owners and drivers staged a sit-in in front of the municipal government building to protest against the decision. Police reportedly detained several protestors on 24 and 26 November. According to a reliable source, the police also issued a wanted notice against 15 of the strikers. Three of those on the list have been formally detained and will be held for a period of 15 days administrative detention, while one was warned against further participation in the strike. The remaining 11 are reportedly still under investigation.


One taxi-owner interviewed informed CLB that, after being widowed, she had borrowed some 190,000 Yuan from relatives and the bank to buy a taxi. She applied for a TOC and has now managed to pay back 50,000 Yuan to the bank, leaving her with a further 50,000 owing to the bank. She told CLB that if the government took away her permit she would be left in serious debt and with no means of making a living.


According to workers, some 160 representatives went to Chengdu, to complain directly to the provincial government of Sichuan. However, the provincial government explicitly stated that it supports the Dazhou government’s redemption policy. The protestors are therefore planning to take their complaint to the central authorities in Beijing. The workers also mentioned that the taxi-owners have been looking for a lawyer to make a legal claim but so far, none of the lawyers they contacted, have dared to take on the case. Local people interviewed supported the strike and were sympathetic to the plight of the taxi-owners.


Staff at the Dazhou Complaints Office and the Sichuan Complaints Office informed CLB that the decision rested with the local Dazhou government and that unless the central government intervenes and changes the policy, the matter will be settled in Dazhou. Staff at the Sichuan Complaints Office also predicted that the heavy-handedness of the government would prevail, as the government could not afford to lose the battle with the taxi-owners for fear of encouraging other protests by workers affected by similar economic changes in the city of Dazhou. CLB was also informed by the staff that the strike would last not much longer as each taxi-owner was losing several hundred Yuan each day and “they could not afford to suffer that long”.


One source also informed CLB that the issue was currently being negotiated and a decision would be known at the end of December. The strikers have vowed to resume their action, should the decision to cancel the certificates stand. According to this source, the Dazhou government had attempted to initiate the new policy in June of this year, but after mass protests in the summer, they were forced to withdraw. The reason for the government’s renewed decision to push through the policy is not known.


10,000 Workers in Xiangfan, Hubei Province, Protest against the Consequences of Privatization


On 18 and 19 November 2003, about 10,000 workers from the Xiangyang Automobile Bearing Company Ltd, Xiangfan City, blocked roads and railway lines across the city in a large-scale protest action aimed at pressuring the government to guarantee the lawful rights and interests of workers during the privatization of the former state-owned company, a process that will entail job losses for many of them. The two-day protest action paralyzed traffic throughout the city and led to a violent confrontation between the workers and the police. Several injuries were reported on both sides. In addition, the main railway line out of Xiangfan remained blocked for two whole days. On 20 November, the Hubei provincial governor and vice-governor went in person to the company to negotiate with the striking workers, but no satisfactory agreement was reached. Although the workers suspended their street demonstrations, all production at the factory remained suspended.


On 19 November, the city government held a closed-door meeting to discuss the crisis. On the public entrance to the building was pasted a “Proclamation” from the municipal public security bureau, listing the names of nine male workers and one female worker from the auto bearing factory whom the police had identified as being “criminal suspects” for their alleged role in leading the workers’ protest. The police proclamation ordered all ten workers to report to the criminal investigation section of the local public security bureau within two days. (Those listed were: Yi Wenfa, Xiao Lihan, Jia Jie (female), Li Qianli, Zhuang Luo, Chen Mingchang, Li Hongming, Liang Yuanlin, Wu Fasheng and Zhang Ming.) According to reliable information received by CLB, all ten workers duly reported to the police station, where they were interviewed for several hours and were then allowed to return home. No arrests have as yet been made, but the official description of the ten workers as “criminal suspects” means that the police are now free to formally detain them at any time.


The Xiangfan workers’ protest was provoked by a combination of the job retrenchment policies carried out by management during the factory’s economic restructuring, and a simultaneous move by the government to privatize local housing. The maximum job-severance compensation standard set by the government is reportedly only 914 Yuan for each year of service, a low figure even by Chinese standards. At the same time, a new housing policy has been introduced that effectively privatizes the workers’ housing quarters. The government’s aim has been to sell to the worker’s families their current homes (which average around 50 square metres in size) for a ‘market price’ of 688 Yuan per square metre.


In effect, this would mean that a couple who had worked at the Xiangyang Automobile Bearing Company for 20 years would receive a combined compensation sum of around 30,000 Yuan after their retrenchment from the factory, but the same couple would then need to pay out around 35,000 Yuan in order to remain in their home. Many of the workers regarded this as a thinly disguised ruse by the government and remained sceptical of the benefits of buying their homes, most of which are 20 to 30 years old and had been built by the workers themselves.


In addition, workers told CLB that the factory currently owes them as much as 3-4 years’ worth of unpaid wages, social security benefits and housing subsidies, and they are deeply concerned that when their jobs are axed as part of the factory’s privatization, their legal entitlement to all these funds will simply disappear in the process. While several workers said that they supported China’s economic reforms and the restructuring of state owned enterprises, one worker told CLB: “We are fighting for our survival”.


[Click here for transcript of an interview on 21 November]


Up To 2,000 Teachers Protest Against Unfair Work Practices in Suizhou, Hubei Province


From 4 November to 7 November 2003, hundreds of schoolteachers from community (minban) schools in the city of Suizhou, Hubei Province, gathered outside the city’s government offices to demand that the government upgrade them to the status of public school (gongban) teachers, as it had promised it would do between 1996-2000. At the height of the protest, the number of demonstrating teachers camped outside the municipal office had risen to more than 2,000. On 5 November, however, the local government sent several vanloads of officials, together with around 30 police officers, to forcibly remove demonstrators and escort them back to their homes. School headmasters from the various localities were instructed to hold the teachers’ representatives in strict isolation at each school. By 7 November, only 100 or so teachers were continuing the public protest demonstration.


Public school teachers in China are generally better paid than community schoolteachers and have guaranteed pension rights. Indeed, many of the Suizhou protestors are former public school teachers who were laid off, then re-hired by the local authorities as community teachers on much lower salaries. Several of the latter stated that they had been awarded only 200 yuan in compensation for each year of service as a public schoolteacher, and after being rehired as community teachers they were receiving only a quarter of the salary paid to public schoolteachers. Moreover, those laid off and rehired during 2002 had so far reportedly only been given around half of the compensation payments due to them. The demonstrating teachers also demanded that the pension benefits of retired community teachers should be increased to at least 350 Yuan.


At one stage in the protest, local government officials held a several-hour negotiation with the community teachers, but neither the municipal education bureau nor the municipal teachers’ trade union (ACFTU) were represented at these talks. (According to one Suizhou official, the deputy head of the education bureau also serves as chairman of the local teachers’ union.) An official from the city government’s Petitions and Complaints Office stated that the local authorities alone could not meet the teachers’ demands, since their problems were shared by community schoolteachers nationwide, and the central government as yet had no clear plan to resolve these issues. However, another Suizhou government official informed CLB that the reason why most of the community schoolteachers had not been upgraded to public schoolteacher status was that they had “violated the family planning scheme” (i.e. China’s one-child policy.)


Despite official provocations and the forced removal of protestors, the Suizhou community teachers have reportedly prepared a strategic plan of action to continue their protest, and they will continue to call upon the government to fulfill its original promises and commitments to them.


[Click here for interview transcripts on 7 November and 5 November ]


Factory Stoppage by Workers in Zhengzhou, Henan Province


On 31 October, employees of the Zhengzhou Construction Machinery Group Inc. blocked the factory entrance in protest against the violation of worker’s interests and benefits that has been occurring as the company undergoes restructuring. In particular, the workers are challenging the legitimacy of the government’s plan to transfer control over the factory’s assets to a new management body on a zero-price basis. The protests continued without resolution, and on 6 November more than 300 employees joined the sit-in demonstration outside the factory gates, halting production completely. At one point, according to a local police officer, the workers also blocked roads leading to the factory.


A local government official stated that the government’s policy was to avoid direct conflict with the protesting workers at all costs. Instead, officials had been visiting the homes of the most active demonstrators at night to “warn them of the consequences” of their actions. According to the chairman of the municipal machinery workers’ trade union, workers’ protests have not been confined to the Zhengzhou Construction Machinery Group. The city government had recently relinquished control over a first batch of 33 local state-owned factories, and workers from many of the affected factories had also been staging protest demonstrations and blocking roads elsewhere in the city. Besides fearing redundancy and long-term unemployment as a result of the Zhengzhou state enterprise reforms, the workers are particularly concerned that they may lose their medical insurance entitlement.


In a remarkable show of honesty, the union chairman admitted that it was impossible for the official trade union to take any initiatives towards resolving the machinery workers’ protest, or to assist in any negotiations between the government and the enterprise, because the union was under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. He concluded, “It is impossible for the trade union in China [ACFTU] to act independently while the Communist Party is still around.”


Teachers on Strike in Lanzhou, Gansu Province


On 12 and 13 November, all thirteen teachers from the Wujiayuan community-run School, previously attached to the Lanzhou No. 1 Wool Spinning Factory in the Qilihe District of Lanzhou, went on strike. Their demands included the payment of several months of missing wages and for the provision of the same benefits that public school teachers have, such as medical insurance and pensions.


Following the Wujiayuan strike, 152 teachers from another local community school, owned by the bankrupt A’gan Town Coalmine, held a five-day strike starting on 13 November. The teachers were demanding the payment of some four months’ wage arrears and protesting against the recent cancellation of a 160-Yuan per month wage increase that the teachers had been awarded in 1999.


In interviews with CLB, teachers stated that during their negotiations with the local government, officials had openly threatened to take retaliatory measures against them after the strike was concluded. Despite this intimidation, the teachers said that they were maintaining a strong sense of solidarity, and that they had formed a 12-person petitioning delegation to put their complaints before higher-level authorities. Meanwhile, their fellow teachers were taking steps to ensure that classes would not be further disrupted.


The personnel office of the Qilihe District education bureau explained to CLB that after the bankruptcy of several local enterprises, management of the latter’s schools had been transferred to the District education bureau. To continue working, the community teachers were asked to sign a re-employment contract that expressly ruled out any changes to their wage rates for a period of three years. This was despite the fact that they received some 300-400 Yuan less than public schoolteachers, alongside whom they now worked, and they are questioning the legality of this discriminatory treatment.



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