Injured worker left on the scrapheap of state-owned enterprise reform

When Sui Baoquan suffered a lumbar fracture during a fall at work in 1996, his employer, a state-owned enterprise (SOE) in the north-eastern border town of Dandong, ignored its legal obligation to provide long-term care and support. Just two years after the accident, the company was restructured and privatized and Sui was cast aside with just a few thousand yuan in compensation.

Abandoned state-owned enterprise. Photograph by Sonya available at flickr.com

Ignored by his employer and local government officials alike for years on end, Sui eventually took his grievances to Beijing. This only antagonized the local authorities more and Sui ended up detained without trial for two months. Sui is now in his 40s, unemployed, unmarried and entirely dependent on his family for support. His injury never fully healed, and he later developed a lumbar disc herniation, a painful and potentially paralysing condition that arises when part of a vertebral disc has moved out of place and presses a nerve in the lower back.

In November 2014, Sui talked to CLB director Han Dongfang about how all his attempts to obtain justice hit a brick wall.

In 1996, Sui Baoquan had been employed as welder at the Dandong Chemical Industry Machinery Plant for five years. While working off-site on an elevated platform one day, Sui fell and suffered a fracture to his lower back. The enterprise agreed to pay his initial medical costs but when Sui applied for verification of occupational injury, his bosses, not wanting to go through a process that could make the enterprise liable for long term disability payments, just sat on the application and did nothing.

Tricked out of disability benefits

Instead, the enterprise offered Sui an informal settlement package and told him that he would eventually make a full recovery. Just two years later, in 1998, the enterprise was caught up in the wave of SOE restructuring that swept China at the end of the century. Despite his injury, Sui was laid off with a severance package of just 4,000 yuan, or 570 yuan for each year of service:

The plant manager told me that those with occupational injuries were all being made redundant and sent home with one-time severance packages. He tried to soften the blow with kind words but we knew we had no choice in the matter. I only found out later that it was not everybody getting the same settlement, and it was only two dozen or so of us who were actually paid off in this way. I was cast aside like an old rag.

Sui explained that he did not make a big fuss at the time because:

We were employees of a state-owned enterprise, and I did not imagine that my relations with my employer could get so complicated. They did not tell us... I felt I had lost my right to occupational injury benefits... They deceived us workers with occupational injuries.

The miniscule severance package was quickly spent and Sui had to find more money from somewhere:

I tried to work as a welder again but after a few days I could no longer go on, my back was simply not strong enough, so I had to stop.

Sui found odd jobs here and there but this was not enough to support himself. He lived with his parents, and was largely dependent on his father’s salary until his death.

In 2008, Sui belatedly applied for labour arbitration in the hope getting his injuries recognised by the state as being work-related. But the arbitration committee was not interested. Sui was told initially that the claim did not fall under its remit and then that he had actually missed the deadline for applications by more than ten years:

What do you mean by that? I asked. They said there is a one-year window. They said if your injury occurred in 1996 and you are only reporting it now, it’s too late.

The arbitration committee suggested that he take the matter to court. Sui took their advice but the court simply upheld the initial ruling of the arbitration committee. Sui was back at square one.

I could not earn a living anymore so I went back to the unit to apply for the minimum subsistence allowance. I do not have medical insurance and I’m not yet eligible for a state pension…  I have no means of support and cannot get married. I feel that my life is no longer going forwards. There was nothing else I could do, so I went petitioning.

A well-trodden road

Petitioning is a long-established practice in China whereby ordinary citizens ask higher-level officials to intercede in and resolve a local dispute. In nearly all cases, the dispute or grievance remains unresolved and the petitioner ends up in more trouble than when they started. This is precisely what happened to Sui Baoquan.

The district petitioning office sent Sui to the municipal office. The municipal office told him to go to the Labour Bureau, and the Labour Bureau referred him back to the municipal petitioning office. Later, he was sent to the provincial petitioning office which rejected his case and sent it back to Dandong. With all local avenues blocked, Sui went to the capital Beijing. He found the whole experience dispiriting.

Basically they don’t let you talk. Sometimes you go and you are not allowed to see anybody. You swipe your identity card, pick up some materials, turn around and go back. That’s the way it is.

Sui became a regular at the Beijing petitioning offices, visiting five or six times a year. It became an expensive business, what with the costs of food, accommodation and train tickets. In due course, the petitioning officials tired of Sui and his visits, and effectively closed his file. The local authorities started to intercept him on his visits to Beijing. “Sometimes they would take me back forcibly. Other times it was done with persuasion, with empty promises to sort out my problems.”

On one occasion, in November 2012, Sui ended up in detention for two months.

I was in Beijing, buying food at the market, and I ran into the Dandong police. They forced me to go back, treating me like a criminal. I was doing nothing illegal, I was not disturbing public order, I was just petitioning as I am legally entitled to do. But I was sent back like a common criminal, and held at detention facility for 57 days, during which time, I got pneumonia. I still have not fully recovered from that.

In detention, they do not let you go out; you are under 24-hour guard. There are guys from the neighbourhood organisation who watch over you while you’re sleeping. They do not let you leave. Big dogs were used to guard us.

November 2012 was of course the time of the 18th National Party Congress in Beijing and the authorities across China were keen to ensure that all perceived trouble makers stayed away from the capital. The same thing happened during the recent APEC summit. On this occasion, Sui was intercepted as soon as he got off the train.

We were walking down the road and saw the police blocking our way. We had bags on each shoulder. They guessed that we were petitioning, and went through our stuff and took things away.

On this occasion, Sui was taken to a holding centre before being driven back to Dandong in a police car, again with promises to sort things out.

A bleak future

The authorities never resolved the issue and to make matters worse, the minimum subsistence allowance that Sui had been living on was cancelled in what appeared to be an act of retaliation for his petitioning.

As he gets older, Sui’s lumbar disc herniation is getting worse. “It swells up, and when this happens, the intervertebral canals are affected, and this puts pressure on the spinal marrow and the nerves. I cannot sit down, walk, or stand for long.”

Han Dongfang suggested that he join the growing group of injured workers on social media, as a means of support at least:

There are many workers with occupational injuries on social media, some of them in a far worse situation than you. These workers bombard the Internet with posts. They constantly put out photographs of themselves in hospital beds at the initial stages of their injury, and their petitioning progress. They have formed a kind of online platform, and they keep in contact with each other. This enables consistent pressure to be applied. They don’t expect a solution immediately or even at all, but they have at least created this platform and have the psychological support of others in the same position so they do not feel so alone.

But Sui was reticent:

Because I am a man and unmarried, and because I have suffered so much, I do not want people around me to feel sad or shed tears on my behalf. I do not want to make public some of my personal feelings.

After seven years of this, I am physically and mentally exhausted. But I will continue regardless. The government is trying to fight corruption, but my case remains unsettled. Whether it is because of corruption or other issues, things have left us ordinary people behind. There is great bitterness in my heart as a worker at an old industrial base in Liaoning. I feel I have made contributions to the country in my youth, but now I am sick. None of the government officials understand ordinary people; none of them uphold justice for them. So I’m bitter and disillusioned after all these years of petitioning.

Sui still holds out the slim hope that his status an employee at his old workplace can be reinstated. He noted that although the company has been privatized and moved to a new location, the workforce in his old department remains substantially the same. “They are all former colleagues, all technicians.”

However given the shadowy and most likely corrupt way the plant was privatized 17 years ago it seems virtually impossible that Sui will get his old job back.

Han Dongfang’s interview with Sui Baoquan was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in nine episodes in November and December 2014.

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