There are many reasons why Chinese workers have been denied proper compensation for a work-related injury, ranging from an employer’s refusal to pay (as in Han Dongfang’s previous interview) to bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. But for postal worker, Chen Huai’en, it all seemed to boil down to the desire of one provincial official to save face.
In 2006, Chen was badly injured when a car with fake registration plates reversed into him in a narrow alley. The 43-year-old driver for China National Postal and Telecommunications Appliances Corp.’s Harbin Branch suffered multiple fractures and severe nerve damage. After two years of operations and legal action, Chen was awarded third-party compensation in a civil suit that covered his basic treatment costs but, as he told China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang in 2011, he has never received the state benefits he is entitled to because the head of the provincial government office responsible has so refused to admit that his interpretation of the law was wrong.
For Chen, the first two steps towards getting work injury insurance were completed smoothly enough. His employer did not contest that his injuries were work-related and Chen was eventually assessed as having a Grade Seven work disability, indicating partial disability. His employer paid for his first operation, but not for the second or third. So Chen initially had to meet all of his surgery and treatment costs out of his own pocket, including the insertion of a steel plate in his leg, until he was finally reimbursed in the civil settlement.
Chen then applied to the provincial department of human resources and social security for a disability allowance and compensation. Since his work unit had paid his work-related injury insurance contributions, this should have been a relatively straightforward procedure but Chen was told that, because he had already received third-party compensation, he was no longer eligible for work-related injury benefits from the state.
According to Chen, the department’s section chief had endorsed his claim but that had been over-ruled by his director who argued that Heilongjiang still applied the 1996 Trial Procedures for Industrial Injury Insurance for Enterprise Employees even though these regulations had long been superseded by the 2004 Work-related Injury Insurance Regulations.
Chen said he believed the director was abusing his authority:
He is doing it to further local interests and perhaps get a share of the benefit. He is abusing state powers vested in him by the Communist Party, to the disadvantage of ordinary people like me. This is a serious violation of the rights of ordinary people.
Chen wrote to the director demanding a written justification for his decision, but his letter was not answered. The last time he went to the office to pursue the matter, Chen said, he was ejected.
Chen then appealed to the Heilongjiang provincial Governor Wang Xiankui via his office’s electronic “Gubernatorial Mailbox” (省长信箱)
I talked to them online. Later the Governor referred my documentation to the Human Resources and Social Security Department and a doctor got in touch ... the Governor was very proactive, when I petitioned him, he promised that I should get lawful treatment, because he understands the law.
But the final response was the same: Chen was not entitled to further benefits because he had already received third-party compensation.
Chen sought the opinion of the Legal Affairs Office of the State Council and was told that failure to implement the Work-related Injury Insurance Regulations was a violation of Article 64 of China’s Legislation Law, which states that regional laws and regulations are considered invalid if in conflict with state-level laws and regulations. Therefore there was no legal obstacle to Chen getting work-related injury benefits as well as his civil compensation.
Chen was assured by lawyers outside the province that he could sue the Heilongjiang government but nobody within the province was willing to take the case on:
I asked two quite well-known lawyers — I went in person to consult them — and the upshot was, they said if I moved away from Heilongjiang, I would be able to get my benefits... Normally you would go to the local bar association in cases like mine. But they do not dare (to take on the local bureaucracy).
In trying to understand why the Heilongjiang departmental director was being so obstinate, Han Dongfang pointed out that since he evidently was not getting any bonuses, percentages, backhanders or any other material interest, or furthering his own influence, the real reason probably came down to him wanting to save face. Having made a wrong decision, Han said, he simply had not been man enough to reverse it because he would have lost face:
When we ordinary people get into conflict with officials, sometimes we need the skill to give them face. If they do not understand the law, we must be careful not to flaunt our own better understanding. You have to give consideration to their face.
At the same time, Han felt that Chen had good grounds for a lawsuit and offered to try to find a lawyer from outside the province who would be willing to take the case on and sue the Heilongjiang Human Resources and Social Security Department.
This is a matter of national laws being flouted by local governments, who use local laws to disadvantage people like you. But this is not just about one person. This is a blot on the all our society.
In the meantime, Chen does now get a monthly allowance from his former employer of 1,100 yuan, a fraction of his earlier wage, taking into account multiple wage rises over the past few years. But, as he explained:
When I compare my life now with what it was... here I am, laid up at home. My daughter-in-law had to give up her job, which took her a long time to find, and now I just sit around downstairs. I cannot even walk down the street easily.
Chen’s health problems have also derailed the education of his son, who had to drop out of college because Chen, the main breadwinner, could no longer afford his tuition fees. The son is now working in a car repair shop in Harbin; he sends his father a portion of his wages each month. The family has no other income apart from the earnings from his wife’s laundry services, washing bedding for local guesthouses.
Han Dongfang's interview with Chen Huai’en was first broadcast in six episodes in September 2011.