China’s Workers Resist Infringements on Their Rights

by Zhang Kai

The following article, dated November 25, 2000, was published in the December 31 issue of October Review, a socialist publication based in Hong Kong.

As the “Communist” government of China increasingly expands the market economy, all types of enterprises, in particular the privately owned ones, unabashedly go after profits and squeeze whatever they can from the workers. Infringements of workers’ rights have become rampant, and newspapers such as Workers Daily and South Workers Newspaper have been reporting on workers’ petitions to the authorities or even workers’ actions. The following is based on these reports.

Infringements of workers’ rights are mostly manifested in the following:

  1. Irregularities in the employment system. The Labor Law stipulates that labor contracts in black and white should be drawn up between the employer and the employees, with clauses clearly stipulated as to the term of service, nature of work, labor safeguards and conditions, remuneration, and conditions for termination of contract. However, many enterprises now lay off large numbers of workers but at the same time employ laborers coming from the countryside or casual workers. They seldom enter into any labor contract with these workers, and if any labor disputes arise, the workers have no way to safeguard their legitimate rights. Even in cases where contracts have been drawn up, the management refuses to comply with the conditions.
  2. Deprivation of the right to employment of large numbers of workers. The “iron bowl” of the past has now turned into a “clay bowl” under market reform. Management has the power to impose dismissal or retirement in the name of increasing efficiency. State-owned enterprises are no exception. For example, the Geophysical Explorations Institute, a subsidiary of the Heilongjiang Provincial Geological Bureau, ordered the “collective resignation” of its 260 staff members. Each person was given a lump-sum compensation equivalent to $2,500. This was meant to release management from any further obligations or insurance responsibilities for these people. The Institute had actually earned profits worth hundreds of thousands of dollars during 1995-98. After the 260 staff members were sacked, new staff members were recruited (on terms more profitable for the Institute, of course).
  3. No guarantee of wages. Deferred payment and nonpayment of wages are common and grave. The Workers Daily of 1 Nov 1999 commented that “it is really ‘news’ to hear that anyone can now receive their wages regularly every month. Whether they are state owned or privately owned enterprises, the prevalent phenomenon is delayed payment of wages. The amount involved is startling.” Investigations made by the Workers Daily show that even if the enterprises are not running on a deficit, they still defer wag payments and divert the funds to other usages. Some enterprises pay wages in kind—whatever products have not been sold, but remain in the warehouse, so some workers are “paid” in clothes or charcoal. Some issue the workers a blank piece of paper making promises of compensation. Some enterprises, in the name of putting workers on “probation”, employ workers at a cheap rate for a short term and then dismiss them when the “probation” period is over.
  4. Arbitrary prolongation of unpaid working hours. Many enterprises force workers to overtime work, violating the maximum number of overtime hours allowed by the Labor Law. For example, a big shoe factory in Zhongshan, Guangdong Province, which is run on joint capital from Chinese and foreign investments, had for six months been compelling (day shift) workers to work until midnight, and did workers got no holiday, not even on May Day. In Panyu in Guangdong Province, the Xingtai Shoe Factory, also run on joint investments, had workers do overtime work for a minimum of four hours every day for over six months. Some enterprises operate on paying the workers not by their hours of work but by tasks (piece work), and the standards set by the management force workers to work overtime in order to meet their quotas.
  5. Compulsory deposits, shares, or loans. Many enterprises force workers to pay several thousand yuan of deposits or shares, or else they will not get the job or not be paid. In 1999 alone, in Jilin Province, the Labor Department, with its inspections and interventions, managed to recover for 200,000 workers illegal deposits amounting to 55 million yuan. The newspaper report said that the phenomenon was prevalent and was not specific to any place, and the reasons were that the enterprises used this as a means to amass capital, and their employees, in order to retain their jobs, failed to fight back.
  6. Industrial hazards and lack of safety precautions. Labor casualties are high, since management does not care about safety measures and workers are prone to accidents due to their fatigue after long hours of intensive work. Most enterprises are reluctant to buy insurance for the workers (to cover job-related injuries), although they are required to do so by law. At the end of 1999, only an average of 37.5% of workers were insured.
  7. Violation of personal safety of the workers. There have been occasional reports of enterprises conducting illegal body searches, and physically abusing workers. In Guangzhou, one enterprise had an injured worker put under illegal detention for over a month for fear that the worker would complain about his industrial accident.

Why are such phenomena so rampant? The reasons include:

  1. The enterprise management hold absolute power over employment or dismissal of workers, and the large “reserve army” causes workers to tolerate harsh working conditions and poor remuneration.
  2. The government laws are inadequate and are more protective of the management than of the workers.
  3. Many officials are keen on developing their local economies and are prejudiced in favor of the investors.
  4. Many enterprise unions compromise with the situation, and workers do not get support from the union.

Yet, compelled by the worsening situations, workers have no choice but to fight back, either by strikes or protests, or by taking management to court. For example, in Beijing, 5,234 such court cases for 1999 represented an increase of 64.2% over 1998. Of these, collective labor dispute cases numbered 242, an increase of 78.5% over the preceding year. A suburban county of the Beijing District witnessed an increase of labor disputes of 5.7 times from 1995 to 1999. The Shanghai Labor Bureau statistics also show similar trends, that labor disputes were increasing by an annual rate of about 30%. Labor disputes in Beijing increased at an alarming rate in 2000: the first six months saw collective dispute cases and cases involving delayed wage payments increase by 120.37% and 118.1%, respectively, over the same period in the preceding year.

Due to censorship, newspaper reports of workers’ strikes and protest actions are limited. According to China Labor Bulletin, there has been an increased number of strikes and sit-ins since 1999. Some recent actions in 2000 included a sit-in strike of 1,000 workers at Arsenal Factory 3508 in Chengdu, starting from July 10, 2000, and demanding satisfactory dismissal terms for the workers when the factory closed down. On August 5–6, over 1,000 workers and family from the state-owned coal mining company blocked traffic and demanded sufficient livelihood subsidies. Six organizers were arrested. On September 25, 500 workers from a state-owned steel factory in Yunnan Province blocked the railway linking Chengdu and Kunming, in protest of a rumored dismissal of workers. The waves of worker protests are prompted by the worsening conditions, and they cannot be simply contained by high-handed measures.