For decades now, local governments across China have sought new ways to cut costs and reduce personnel. One of the most common methods is to downgrade or reclassify full-time state and public sector employees as part-time or agency workers.
This is precisely what happened to 52-year-old Lu Fengxiang, who in 2006, after 14 years as regular employee of the local government-funded broadcasting station, was suddenly relegated to the status of temporary employee. His salary dropped from 1,500 yuan to just 350 yuan per month and he was left without a pension, medical and housing insurance.
In September 2010 Lu talked to CLB Director Han Dongfang about his long-running dispute with the local authorities in Jianping county, Liaoning, and his unsuccessful attempts to file a lawsuit and petition the central government in Beijing, which eventually led to him being detained by the police for five days.
After a five year stint in the army in the early 1980s, Lu Fengxiang got a job as an editor and announcer at the local government broadcasting station of Yichenggong township in Jianping county. He was hired initially as a temporary employee but in 1992 was put on the payroll as a regular employee of a public institution (全额拨款编制). The broadcasting station implemented a rolling system of employment contracts, with contracts renewed every three years. The actual employment contracts however were issued by the county personnel bureau.
The good times did not last. In 2004 and 2005, there was another round of county-level job competitions. Lu had to jump through a series of hoops to compete for his job, including a general literacy exam, a public speaking test, a “democratic review,” and a performance evaluation by his supervisor. He passed these tests and his employment contract was renewed in early 2005. Lu never expected that a little over a year later, he would be sacked by the county personnel bureau and made a temporary employee of the broadcast station.
Discriminated against on account of his background and age
The personnel bureau gave two reasons for Lu’s dismissal: first, he had a rural background; second, he was over 45-years-old at the time. In other words, it was blatant discrimination based on age and rural background. Lu said there were more than 30 people at the station in the same boat. Their ages ranged from 45 to 50, and some were as old as 60. However, unlike Lu, many of these employees had only been made regular employees the previous year
After losing his regular employment status in 2006, Lu rushed around from one government office to another in search of redress.
We went to the county, municipal and provincial government offices. We also wrote a series of letters to various departments explaining our situation. I decided to sue. I went to the court myself to file the lawsuit.
Of the more than 30 employees with regular contracts, Lu was the only one who decided to bring a lawsuit: “They all thought that going to court was pointless. They felt that our best shot was to petition the higher-ups”
Lu said that one of his concerns was that although his status had been changed from regular to temporary employee, he still had a job: “If I lodge a complaint with the higher authorities, this is bound to get back directly to the head of the township government and the township Party secretary.”
Lu had initially applied for labour arbitration, but the county personnel bureau produced evidence indicating that the 60-day time limit for arbitration had expired. So in March 2009, Lu tried to file a lawsuit against the county personnel bureau at the county court. But the court refused to hear the case. Lu then tried the Chaoyang Municipal Court but the court also refused to hear the case and what’s more, it refused to even issue a written document rejecting the case, as required by law.
When the judicial process proved to be a dead end, in June 2009, Lu was left with no alternative but to join his colleagues in petitioning the higher authorities in Beijing.
The long and winding road to nowhere
He was told by an official in the capital that his situation had already been reported to the provincial-level authorities.
The provincial office then wrote a request slip for me, which I proceeded to take to the county petition bureau. The county petition bureau forwarded the slip to the county personnel bureau, which told me, “You can talk till you’re blue in the face, we shelve piles of cases like yours here. Your complaints, including the letters, have all landed here. What this means is that you ought to take it easy. As the saying goes, a mighty dragon cannot crush a snake in its den (meaning that even a powerful outsider cannot beat a local bully).”
Undeterred, Lu travelled to Beijing again. This time however he and five of his fellow petitioners were taken to a police station in the southern suburbs.
The officers in the police station recorded our statements word for word. Later, the Beijing office of our county petitions bureau summoned us, placed some phone calls and had us taken back to our county public security bureau. The county head and the county Party secretary personally insisted that we must be arrested. And that’s what happened then: we were put under detention.
Lu and the others were detained for five days by their respective public security bureaus. The warrants stated that the reason for their detention was “travelling to Beijing to petition the authorities.”
After he was released, Lu thought about suing the police but in the end decided against it. “We considered suing over this matter because we had experience with litigation. But we knew that even if we went to court, it was no use. We thought that suing again was bound to get us nowhere.”
Lu acknowledged too that going to Beijing would not solve his problems but as he said: “I just wanted to put some pressure on the county Party committee and the county government.”
Lu is now seen by the local authorities as a trouble maker and is kept under tight scrutiny, especially in early March when the National People’s Congress is held in Beijing:
The county leadership instructs the lower levels to find out which individuals have attempted to petition the higher authorities and rely on the township Party secretaries and the township heads to put pressure on them.
Nevertheless, Lu is determined to keep pushing until he gets justice. His main demand is that he be reinstated as a regular employee in a public institution, and that he be compensated for his wage and social security arrears.
When Lu was taken off the regular payroll and reclassified as a temporary worker his monthly wage was slashed to 350 yuan. It has now increased to 500 yuan but that is still only one quarter of what he would get as a regular employee. Moreover, he now has no healthcare, old-age or work-related injury insurance benefits. His wife is unemployed and they have two children at college. As a result they have been forced to borrow money to pay their tuition.
Han Dongfang’s interview with Lu Fengxiang was first broadcast in five episodes in September 2010.