Hard road to justice

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China’s workers are facing extremely important questions of health, money for living and a management that doesn’t care about them. They are increasingly frustrated and are fighting back. Here are a few of their stories.

Extreme action: Huang Qunyue and three of his co-workers just wanted to get their jobs back, but the company refused to listen to them. The company used force and tried to bully them, but the four workers did not stop their fight for justice. The four workers - Huang Qunyue and his three co-workers – worked for a power company in Hunan in China. It was a state company, and they had good jobs. The jobs were long-term and had good benefits. But the workers had not signed a proper work contract with the company.

In 2007 the power company tried to avoid obeying new laws in China. These laws made it necessary for the company to give formal contracts to its workers. The company did the opposite. It secretly gave the workers’ jobs to another smaller supply company of the power company. The four workers were put on short-term contracts with the supply company and became “dispatch workers” (sent by one company to another to do work more cheaply). They are paid less than full-time workers, and they have fewer rights like health insurance and pensions.

Huang and his co-workers learnt about the change in their employment situation early in 2008. At that time, there was a terrible winter storm in southern China, and it was very cold. The freezing weather broke electricity power lines and left communities in the countryside in Hunan without electricity for many weeks. Huang and his co-workers worked day and night for several months to help fix the electricity supply in Hunan. In May, they finally had time to write a letter to officials in the local government. In the letter they asked those officials to help them to get their old jobs back. This kind of letter – where you write to someone in power asking for justice – is called a petition. In China making a petition is a traditional way of trying to make better a bad situation, but in Huang’s case the petition was not at all successful.

Huang’s letter caused more problems for him and his co-workers. The power company said that Huang and his co-workers had used work time to make the petition. Huang and his co-workers said that this was not true, but the company used this as a reason to fire them, and they lost their jobs. Huang and his co-workers tried to take the company to court to get their jobs back. They were told that workers do not have the right to do this with a state company. Next, the company tried to bully Huang and his co-workers: two of them were attacked by a large group of people while they were working. They got badly hurt.

Huang and three co-workers could not accept the situation in Hunan and they decided to go to Beijing to make a new protest. Hoping that people in Beijing would be able to help them better, they made their protest outside the gates of a famous university. According to Huang, they wanted to show their strength by protesting how their employers had broken their human rights. Huang and his co-workers also wanted to protest how the law and courts in Hunan had not been able to give them justice. When they made their protest, each of the workers cut off the end of their little fingers.

Their protest was not successful. Before they could get any medical treatment, they were pushed away by some officials and forced to go back to Hunan. A police chief met them in Hunan and, to show his power, said to them: ‘I am the law.’ Next, the workers were arrested without any legal reason. They were then kept in prison without trial for two weeks by the local police. During this time, the workers were warned to stop protesting. Now Huang is trying to take the local police to court for arresting them without following any law.

An activist is born: Ruan Libing The accident happened on the night of 10 June 2009 at the Elec-Tech plant (a Walmart supplier) in Zhuhai on the south China coast. Ruan Libing was working at night in the factory. He had been there for less than a month. Without having any training, he was told to operate some old machines. These machines were used to make plastic objects, but the machines were dangerous and had already badly hurt several workers. At midnight, Ruan Libing caught his left hand in the 60-ton machine. His hand was crushed, and Ruan Libing was taken by his employer to a nearby hospital. Without his agreement, his hand was cut off at the wrist – or ‘amputated’. At the age of 21, Ruan’s working life was basically finished.

The Labour Department of the local government looked at Ruan’s condition and decided that he should be given 21,000 yuan ($3,182). The state gave this money as an insurance payment for damage to workers’ bodies at work. Ruan’s employer agreed to pay another 90,000 yuan ($13,677). This is the minimum amount of money by law. It seemed a lot of money for Ruan, a young migrant worker. His parents lived in poverty in the countryside. But the total amount of money was much too little to support Ruan for the rest of his life. He would have no chance of getting married and starting his own family.

With the help of his cousin, Ruan arranged for a lawyer to take his case. The lawyer tried to get more compensation for him. Ruan’s lawyer argued that Ruan should get more compensation. He gave two reasons. First, Elec-Tech had not shown proper care for its workers. Second, Ruan would have extreme difficulty in finding work in the future. The company’s lawyers simply laughed at these arguments.

Ruan lost the first trial, but he continued to try to win his case. He went to a higher court. At the end of October 2010, the company offered an additional 130,000 yuan ($19,818) on condition that Ruan would give up the case. Although it was only about half the amount he was trying to get, Ruan thought it was probably the best deal he was ever going to get.

During this difficult experience, Ruan changed from being a quiet young man who was ashamed of his condition into becoming a determined activist for workers’ rights. He pushed local journalists to cover his story. He even organized a theatre performance with other Elec-Tech workers who had also suffered amputations. This performance was intended to show the absolutely terrible working conditions at the factory. But, in the end, the performance was stopped after Elec-Tech started taking action to improve safety at the plant. The company also decided to pay more compensation to those former workers who agreed to stop making political theatre and showing Elec-Tech in a bad light.

Black death: Xiao Huazhong is a retired coal-miner who has black-lung disease (where a person’s lungs slowly stop working because they are full of dust). The disease will kill him, and he doesn’t have long to live. In June 2010 Xiao Huazhong was finally given 136,000 yuan ($20,600) by the decision of a court. This money was compensation for the illness he had got from working in a coal mine.

The award was much less than the law says he should get. But after fighting his case for more than three years Xiao did not have any money, and he decided to take the deal.

Xiao, who is now 62, comes from a poor family in the countryside in Sichuan Province. The person he was fighting in his case was his former boss, Liao Xing’an. Liao Xing’an is a powerful man who has many businesses to do with coal. Liao had the support of his friends and people in the local government and courts. He completely refused to pay Xiao more than a few thousand yuan in compensation.

Xiao took his problem to court on 11 September 2008 asking for compensation for his ‘occupational illness’, from his job. He also wanted to get money from the court to pay for his medical costs. He lost the first case, but went to a higher court, the “Dazhou Municipal Intermediate People’s Court”.

Five days before he went to the second court, Xiao was ordered by village chiefs to go to a meeting. At this meeting the village chiefs put pressure on Xiao to drop his case. He says one of the villagers told him:

‘Don’t take action in the court against the coalmine. You are poor and sick, and the government gives money each year to people who have difficulties. The government will give you 300-400 yuan ($45-60) for the period of the New Year Festival. Next year you will get a basic amount of money each month to cover your living and medical costs. But if you still want to take action against the coalmine, we will say you are lying and we will put you in prison!’

Xiao did not stop. On 5 January 2009, Xiao telephoned the judge to discuss the case. The judge told him to drop his case. Although he had these problems with the law, Xiao and his family kept pushing. Early in 2010, Xiao’s son contacted labour activist Zhang Haichao. Like Xiao, Zhang also had the same black-lung disease. The year before, Zhang had become famous across China when he chose to have an ‘open-chest’ medical operation. The operation showed that his lungs were full of dust from the coal mines. But the doctors at a government hospital had told him a different story. Zhang visited Xiao in hospital in May and promised: ‘Don’t worry, Uncle Xiao. We well help you get justice.’

Because Zhang was so famous, Xiao’s case was soon shown in the national media, including China Central Television. The news reports talked about the problems that migrant workers have. In particular, the news reports talked about how workers who do not have a proper work contract have difficulties in getting compensation if they have an accident at work or if they have get sick because of the kind of work that they do.

The media stories finally got some results for Xiao, so Liao and his local government supporters were forced to make a deal. Although the deal was not ideal, at least it was enough to give care for Xiao in his last years. Xiao’s son has now become active in the fight for justice for other victims of occupational illness in China. It is believed that there are over a million workers with occupational illnesses in China at the present time.


Contract : agreement

Benefit : something that helps improve your life eg. free meals, overtime payment or health insurance

Pension : regular money from the state or from a private company when you stop working.

Amputate : to cut off (eg. an arm)

Compensation : something which is given to try and put right a wrong situation or a loss eg. money.

NI Issue 441

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the originals, please see: http://www.newint.org/features/2011/04/01/justice-chinese-workers/