In the two decades since China introduced the Enterprise Bankruptcy Law in 1986, hundreds of thousands of state-owned enterprises have declared bankruptcy, been merged or sold-off to other enterprises. The law is supposed to protect the pensions and retirement benefits of workers at bankrupt enterprises but all too often these benefits are reduced, delayed or cancelled entirely. Enterprises and government departments either claim they don't have the money or that it is not their responsibility to make up the missing payments. Many retired workers, when faced with this seemingly impenetrable maze of bureaucracy, simply give up and accept what little benefits they can get. Some however fight back and can go extraordinary lengths to recover what is rightfully theirs.
When Wang Andong's former workplace, an agricultural machinery repair shop on a state farm in north-eastern China, declared bankruptcy in 1996, he lost three years' worth of retirement, medical and other benefits totalling over 14,000 yuan. However the former Communist Party secretary and National Model Worker didn't take it lying down. In a one-man struggle with China's agricultural and welfare bureaucracies, Wang has spent the last 11 years trying to claw back the allowances owed to him. In June this year, Wang described to CLB Director Han Dongfang his years of being "kicked around from office to office like a football" as he pursued the payments he is entitled to by law.
Wang was born in Heilongjiang in 1932, and spent his early years working as a shepherd for a local landowner. "After land reform in 1945, the landowner's flock was seized by the peasants' association and divided up. I was just a herdsman, so what was I to do? I took my sheep and went to a local brewery that kept livestock. I tended my flock there."
Wang and a friend later moved to a livestock farm in Ning'an county. "After we got there, the boss told us to stop wasting our time with sheep and pigs and go off to the state farm and learn to drive a tractor. That's how I arrived at the state farm. Not only did I learn to drive a tractor, after attending some classes at the cultural centre in Mudanjiang, I learnt to read and write too. Slowly at first – five characters a day – but gradually I got a bit of learning."
"I eventually became boss of the workshop, and then factory manager, and then, in 1966, when Chairman Mao was trying to support world-wide revolution, they needed someone with a wide-range of abilities to go abroad. Well, I could bore cylinders, repair tractors, and assemble motors. So the provincial leaders selected me ... but because my wife's background had attracted suspicion they had to do a lot of research into her family history, not only in Yi'an county but also in Hebei and Shandong provinces and a lot of other places. Anyway, I am a versatile mechanic, and I was selected to go and work in Tanzania for nearly three years."
Wang worked in an agricultural equipment manufacturing and repair shop in Tanzania, part of a wider Chinese funded project to construct the 1,860 kilometre long Tanzania-Zambia railway.
On his return home, Wang struggled to readapt to the harsh winter climate of Heilongjiang and contracted a skin disease that still plagues him today. He worked at a farm equipment repair shop until his retirement in 1986. "Before I retired, I was director of the workshop, and party secretary. If there was a workshop somewhere that was having problems, I was sent there to sort things out... There was one workshop that lost tens of thousands of yuan. A year after I went there, it had turned around. But this work was a real headache, I can tell you."
At the time of his retirement, Wang was a provincial and national Model Worker, a Communist Party title created in 1950 to honour dedicated workers from humble backgrounds. Wang attended several model worker conferences across the country, and was received on numerous occasions by the county governor and the provincial leadership. "‘You're a hero,' they told me. And yet - good heavens! - after more than a dozen years they still have not given me the retirement money I am owed."
Wang's troubles began ten years after his retirement from the state farm in 1986. Until 1996, he drew full retirement and other benefits. But then the main repair shop declared bankruptcy without following proper legal procedures. As a result, Wang's benefits plunged to just 100 yuan per month in living expenses, rising after a year to 200 yuan and then to 300 yuan. He continued to receive this reduced allowance until May 1999, when full payments resumed. The arrears that Wang is now claiming all date from this period between 1996 and 1999. "They have several elements: there is an honour allowance of 1,800 yuan, medical costs under Heilongjiang Provincial Ordinance No.19 totalling about 4,000 yuan, and the missing retirement benefits, which total at least 10,000 yuan."
Full payment of the retirement benefits resumed in May 1999, and the honour allowance was reinstated in 2003. But Wang says most of the medical costs remain unpaid to this day, and that he has had to meet the heavy cost of treating his skin problems out of his own pocket. During his campaign, Wang has knocked on countless doors, pleaded his case with agricultural, welfare, union and court officials, and read through reams of legislation. His efforts have not been fruitless. Through the good offices of a senior local legislator, he received 2,500 yuan in medical expenses. And in September 2006, the local government approved a payment of 4,100 yuan. But Wang still believes he is still owed more than 14,000 yuan in various other benefits.
The main stumbling block, Wang says, is the local Farm Equipment Bureau, which will not recognise his claims, even though those claims have been approved by the county government. Wang has spent long hours studying the relevant legislation and regulations to ensure his claims are grounded in law. He is emphatic on this point and can cite clauses and articles to back up his claim. "I want this to be settled within the law. If it is not legal, I don't want the money."
And if the bureau is unable to pay him because it lacks the money, he is willing to accept that too. "But (the bureau) does have the money. It sold some off some assets and there is no question of it lacking funding." He cites the disposal of a water-tank plant at state farm as an example. Moreover, Wang points out that while the law allows bankrupt enterprises to lay workers off; "I could not find in any document a clause that says that wages in arrears can be left unpaid. Nothing of this sort is stipulated, however hard you look."
What Wang finds most galling is that the Farm Equipment Bureau refuses to recognise his claims on the grounds that that the repair shop's bankruptcy did not follow legal procedures, even though it was the Farm Equipment Bureau itself that presided over the proceedings. "What an attitude. The way they talked to me, even now I can't find the words. You could not believe such highly placed people could talk as basely as that. .. This year I'm 76 years old, and I never expected [such treatment] after devoting my life to the revolution … the leaders in the old days, they really respected me. I did really tough work without complaining, and in the end this Farm Equipment Bureau... None of them are worthy to stand beside the herdsman I once was."
Who is responsible?
Unpaid retirement benefits should also be within the remit of the social security authorities. But in his many visits to the Social Security Bureau, Wang has won little more than sympathy. "The social security people say the [bankruptcy] court violated state laws and regulations. They should have handed over social mutual assistance programme expenses, tax money, and unpaid debts. But they did not follow legal procedures. They say that the enterprise assets were sold off without going through the proper legal procedures. So, they basically do not recognize the various social insurance claims of retirees."
Wang also feels the Social Security Bureau has let him down over payment of his "honour" allowance, to which he was entitled as a model worker. Payments were resumed in 2003, but for the years before then, Wang was unable to get his claim accepted. "I needed a specific document, but they wouldn't give me it. They gave no reason, and gave me another document, and said look through this see if what you're looking for is there. I looked for half a day, and I could not find it. They were fobbing me off."
Wang said the bureau basically told him to be content with the little he had managed to get back so far. "The county governor approved medical payments for me several times, and the Social Security Bureau seized on this and said, ‘if the county government gives approval, then this is already sorted out for you. Didn't you already get some 2-3,000 yuan?' Yet I have spent over 10,000 yuan out of my own pocket on medical expenses, for prescriptions for this skin problem I cannot cure."
Wang feels the Social Security Bureau also failed in its duties of oversight regarding the repair shop's suspect bankruptcy. "The fact is, if you don't go after the money that is owed then you tacitly approve, right?"
What use is the union?
The official trade union, despite its legal obligation to defend workers' interests, has been equally ineffectual. Some years ago Wang met the local union deputy chairman, who was also a member of the County Communist Party standing committee, and was jokingly told by him that "I have duties but no authority."
"The union made a phone call to a director at the Complaints Bureau (an organ under the General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, handling complaints about corrupt and incompetent officials), and asked them to sort things out, and the Complaints Bureau told the main repair shop to sort the problem out but clearly they didn't."
Wang does not plan to approach the union again. Nor was he impressed by the attitude of the provincial government's labour dispute arbitration panel when he tried to reclaim three months of unpaid pension bonus that retirees were entitled to after wages across China were increased in 1999 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. "Nobody takes responsibility," he said, "and so the burden falls on my shoulders."
Unable to get satisfaction through the normal channels, Wang has tried twice to sue the repair shop and the Farm Equipment Bureau at Yi'an county court. On both occasions he failed to get his case accepted. After being rejected by the People's Court in November 2004, he was told by somebody supposedly in the know that "the county government has its reasons for not allowing this case to go ahead. Look, you're not too badly off. Call it a day. Don't pursue this."
However, Wang has never received an official explanation in writing from the court or the local government as to why his case was rejected. Moreover the whole episode cost him over 100 yuan in legal fees.
The one thing Wang has not done is plead his cause to the authorities in Beijing. "Good Lord, no. They say anybody who goes there to make a complaint gets arrested! I don't know if that is true or not. Anyway, I never went."
What hope for the future?
What emerges from Wang's account of this long campaign is that his few victories have usually been the result of personal interventions by sympathetic officials, leading to small amounts of money being unlocked. Crucially, Wang has had direct access to, and the backing of the county governor, though only after repeated applications. Of course, most retirees who, like Wang, have been cheated out of their pension money are not former model workers. Indeed, Wang estimates that "only a few old soldiers" like him are able to get the kind of official approvals he has relied on. The frustrations he has faced despite official backing leave little grounds for hope for the countless other ordinary workers seeking redress after losing out unfairly in state-owned enterprise closures. Many other victims of Wang's repair shop bankruptcy are still waiting for their unpaid benefits, and Wang admits that his own lack of success has discouraged several former colleagues who have joined him in his campaign. "Old Wang," they say, "If even you cannot sort this out, what hope do we have?"
However for the indomitable Wang - whose three middle-aged children are also struggling to get by after being laid off - the fight goes on. "I will go to the county government again," he says. "It has already given approval for the Farm Equipment Bureau [to pay me], but they have not yet taken action."
China Labour Bulletin, meanwhile, urges anybody in a position to offer Wang legal support in his fight for his rights to volunteer their services.
Han Dongfang's interview with Wang Andong was broadcast in six episodes from 6 June to 18 June 2007.