Teachers in China: Increasing protests and lack of basic rights

The lack of investment and the failure of the central authorities to invest in rural schools have increasingly led to the failure of many townships to be unable to pay wages or other benefits. In ways similar to the millions of other Chinese workers affected by the recent economic reforms, teachers have been facing decreasing wages, increased work hours, decreasing medical and insurance benefits and in any cases the denial of stable work contracts.

According to official statistics a total of 21.38 million workers have been laid off from SOEs since the reforms began and the numbers of teachers laid off by local governments is also increasing rapidly. In many cases these workers are promised redundancy money, unemployment benefits or other forms of compensation but often, this promised compensation never arrives – having been embezzled by corrupt officials. In many cases, many benefits such as pension funds are claimed by teachers from their work unit, not, as in many other states, from the central authorities or a separate pension system. This means that when an enterprise is bankrupted or a school is facing financial crisis, workers immediately lose their pensions. China Labour Bulletin has also monitored several instances where teachers have been laid off and then re-hired by the same schools on short time or temporary contracts, generally with much lower benefits than previously. Given the lack of independent trade unions and the denial of the rights of freedom of association adn collective bargaining, teachers often find themselves powerless to negotiate redundancy packages or new contracts.

In some cases, teachers have been dismissed from their posts for involvement in labour disputes. In late 1998, a teacher, Sun Qisheng, and a journalist, Lao He, were penalized after exposing malpractices committed by the local leader in charge of education, in the Xuecheng district in Zaozhuang city in the northeastern province of Shandong. As a result of their action, Lao was detained by the local Public Security Bureau for 15 days in December1998 and then sentenced by the local labour through-re-education (Laojiao) committee to three years term in the labour camp for committing libel. Sun was fired from his job and received a serious disciplinary warning from the Chinese Communist Party. Both Lao and Sun appealed against their sentences and eventually won their appeal four months later. Their penalties were lifted however; no action was taken against the local education official.

In August 2003, CLB monitored the cases of some 600 teachers who had not been paid wages since starting work at schools in Pucheng County, Weinan City, Shanxi province last September. In interviews, the Education Bureau informed CLB that if the teachers had not received wages they could apply for benefits from the school. The schools however, told CLB that they had no money or plans to provide benefits.

In June 2003, CLB monitored a protest in Suizhou, Hubei province involving up to 200 school teachers. The teachers had been protesting outside the city government offices to demand the payment of severance allowances owned to them by the local government when it laid off over 2,500 public teachers in Zengdou District in 2002. Some of the teachers were allowed to transfer to public school teaching posts; some older teachers retired under Hubei Province stipulations, but the remaining teachers were dismissed. After they were laid off the local government unilaterally instituted a policy which promised them one month’s salary payment for every year of service. The payment was to be paid in installments with a portion paid each year by different authorities; however the local government portion had not been received by the teachers because the local governments had no funds to make the payments. The teachers were protesting at the lack of these payments and the fact that the severance pay was in fact calculated at the rate of 180 Yuan (approximately US$21.75) per month and not the full monthly wage of approximately 400 Yuan a month. Zengdou is now rehiring many of the laid-off teachers as supply teachers on short term contracts. In one school alone in Hongshan, more than 60 laid-off teachers were rehired as supply teachers on salaries of only 300 Yuan a month with no medical or retirement pensions. Despite the official presence of a local education trade union for the teachers, the union has not been involved in any way in the dispute.

In December 2002, retired teachers in Jiangsu protested against government imposed wage cuts of 20 percent. The reduction in wages was reportedly due to a new State Council policy outlining a uniform pay scheme for all civil servants (retired and serving teachers included). Under the new policy, the central government will take care of 80% of the payment with the remaining 20% paid out of local funds by local authorities ‘if and when finances permitted’. However, it was soon discovered that the remaining 20 percent was not going to be paid as the local government claimed it did not currently have enough funds and the payments were not strictly compulsory.

In late 2001, more than 160 teachers from one school in Xintai county, Shandong province went on strike over unpaid wages. According to interviews, most teachers were owed a total of five months' wages. The average monthly wages had dropped by close to 300 Rmb, and the teachers had reportedly not received any reimbursements for medical fees for more than five years.

Teachers: right to freedom of association

In China, teachers cannot organize their own trade unions, and have no channels to bargaining collectively with the central and local governments. Although the Chinese Government has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), it placed a reservation on its obligations towards Article 8 of the Covenant, which guarantees trade union rights, in particular Article 8.1a on the right to freedom of association.

Deprived of any supportive trade union and deprived of any other voce in the proceedings in the school and its policies, teachers involved in disputes, claiming unpaid wages or protesting corruption, often initially begin by petitioning the school management. Once this fails, they have little choice but to take further action – outside the confines of the establishment. The inability of the ACFTU to act as a voice for workers along with the intransigence of the employers and the lack of any independent worker’s groups and means of dispute resolution means that there are few avenues left for workers to take, except to demonstrate and petition central and provincial authorities. When such protests are ignored or repressed, then demonstrations continue to rise and are often labeled subversive or, at the very least “illegal” demonstrations. The numbers of labour activists detained and imprisoned in China continues to increase with the rising tide of labour unrest.

The past few years in China have seen an exponential increase in the number of spontaneous strikes, public protests and sometimes violent riots by laid-off and increasingly desperate workers all around the country. These worker’s protests now include demonstrations by civil servants, pensioners, teachers, as well as unskilled manual workers. The Chinese authorities must realize that if it wants to have a genuinely stable and well-functioning market economy, then it must also allow workers the right to engage in free collective bargaining and to form their own representative bodies through which to pursue fair, equitable and safe terms of employment.
China Labour Bulletin urges the Chinese authorities to allow teachers the fundamental right to freedom of association and expression, including the right to form independent trade unions.

November 2003

Archived Status: 
Back to Top

This website uses cookies that collect information about your computer. Please see CLB's privacy policy to understand exactly what data is collected from our website visitors and newsletter subscribers, how it is used and how to contact us if you have any concerns over the use of your data.