Adding insult to injury: Workers denied justice and detained after self-mutilation protest

16 December 2010

On 1 August 2010, four electric power workers from rural Hunan, who just two years earlier had braved snow and freezing blizzards to get southern China’s electricity supply back on line, sat down by some iron railings near the entrance to Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. Each of them took out a vegetable knife, and, as students and passers-by milled around, cut off the tip of his little finger.

This act of self-mutilation was the culmination of a year-long campaign by 19 workers protesting unfair dismissal by their de facto employer, the county power bureau. The bureau had first stripped them of regular-employee status and transferred them to a subsidiary handling temporary workers, to get round the requirements of the newly enacted Labour Contract Law. Then it had dismissed them for allegedly using company time to protest this demotion. All their attempts to obtain redress through official channels had failed. An arbitration committee found against them, and numerous lawsuits at three different courts were all rejected. During this process, two of the workers were severely beaten and several others were threatened. In the end, four worker representatives took their cause to the capital, in the belief that Beijing’s residents were “a better sort of people, with a strong sense of justice.”

Worker representative Huang Qunyue told CLB Director Han Dongfang that their protest was “an act of desperation,” designed to “demonstrate our absolute resolve in protesting the violation of our rights by our employers, and the inability of the judicial system to deliver justice.”

The protest failed. Without receiving any kind of treatment for their wounds, the workers were forcibly taken back to Ningyuan county in Hunan by several local officials, including the county’s deputy police chief, who bluntly told them, “I am the law.”

After we got back, we were taken to the local Public Security Bureau. It was past four o’clock in the afternoon. We were sat on stools the whole time, and they kept on asking us questions, over and over. This went on until past seven o’clock in the morning the following day — we sat there all night. Later, past five o’clock in the afternoon on the second day, they drafted a detention order, and sent us straight to the detention house, because ‘we had been disturbing public order in Beijing.’ That was the pretext.

Huang was detained from 7 to 13 August, while the other three were held in “administrative detention” for 15 days. Han’s interview with Huang was conducted while the other three were still locked up. Huang said he had no regrets:

There was no other way. The company has all the power. We had been pursuing the legal route for over one year and achieved nothing; nobody would take on our case. The authorities just kept telling us, ‘you can do whatever you like, it will make no difference.’ This was the only thing we could try, to see how it worked out.

Victims of economic reform and enterprise restructuring

The origins of this dispute lie in China’s historically vague employment arrangements. Huang, now 42, is a veteran power worker. Since 1993, he had been in the employ of the power authorities in Ningyuan county, near the city of Yongzhou. Originally, he had worked at an electronics plant. After that went bust, he was assigned to a rural power station, a subsidiary of the Ningyuan Water Conservancy Bureau (itself a power supplier, as it included hydroelectric operations). In 2000, this rural power station was merged into the newly established, local government-controlled Ningyuan Power Bureau, supplying five local counties. All personnel and assets of the rural power station now came under Ningyuan Power Bureau’s management. While still attached to the rural power station, the workers in question reported for duty to the Ningyuan Power Bureau after March 2003. Huang’s job in this time was to fix installations that had broken down, answering emergency calls that took him all over the area. He handled all kinds of jobs, and was also involved in engineering project planning.

The workers remained formally under the Water Conservancy Bureau, though their management was now the Ningyuan Power Bureau and their nominal workplace the rural power station. As employees of the Water Conservancy Bureau, they enjoyed full employee status and benefits as state-owned enterprise (SOE) workers, and this status continued after their transfer to Ningyuan Power Bureau. However, in all this time Huang never had a written employment contract. His employment relationship was always informal.

In 2008, the Labour Contract Law was introduced in an attempt to establish a more formalized employment relationship and give workers greater job security. Ningyuan Power, like many other enterprises took measures to get around the law before it was enacted. In 2007, Huang’s employment relationship was transferred to Hengyuan Rural Power Services Company, a concern ostensibly set up by Ningyuan Power Bureau to handle its temporary migrant workers. And Huang and his colleagues were sent to work at the “Taiping Rural Power Station,” which according to Huang was a paper company founded and funded by the Ningyuan Power Bureau, with no assets and no authority to make salary payments. The workers had effectively been demoted from SOE employee, with full rights and benefits, to temporary dispatch labourer. And all this was done without their consent or even knowledge.

Our salary and social insurance accounts were apparently all transferred on the same day, behind our backs, and the first we knew about it was when a guy in the finance department told us, at the beginning of 2008, that our wages were being issued by Hengyuan Rural Power Service.

At this time however they were working long hours in appalling conditions repairing the region’s electricity power lines and other infrastructure damaged during the big freeze of 2008, which paralysed vast tracks of the country for weeks, even months on end. “At that time we could not think our particular payment arrangements, we were frontline workers, on the job 24/7, no time to think about other stuff.”

It was not until May that year that Huang and 18 other long-term employees found the time to go to Hunan Electric Power Company, the provincial supplier that controls Ningyuan Power, to demand that they be put back on the Ningyuan Power payroll and be offered unlimited employment contracts, as specified in the Labour Contract Law. The provincial power provider told them to try to obtain a settlement at their local city power bureau in Yongzhou. “But there, we were told that employment contract issues were handled by a subsidiary,” Huang said. After this rebuff, the 19 demoted workers had little choice but to begin the round of petitioning offices.

So we went to the city level, were referred to the county level, then back to the city level, and the provincial level, and then we were referred to an office in Beijing. In Beijing, the message we got was try again at the local level. And so we did. But nobody paid any attention.

And then, on 25 December 2008, the 19 were dismissed by Ningyuan Power Bureau on grounds of “absenteeism for more than 15 days”. Huang disputes this, saying the time used for petitioning all came from their holiday entitlement: “We did not use up a single working day.” Privately, some of the managers admitted that they knew the charge of excessive absenteeism was unfair, but said they were powerless to help.

Rejection by the courts

In response to their dismissal, the 19 moved from petitioning to legal action. They began by approaching the Hunan provincial arbitration committee, which referred them to the Yongzhou Municipal Labour Dispute Arbitration Committee. This body ruled that the 19 workers had no employment relationship with Ningyuan Power Bureau, and that their employer was Hengyuan Rural Power Services.

During the arbitration proceedings, on 5 June 2009, two of the 19 workers were attacked by a large group of unknown assailants, who broke into their offices at the Ningyuan Power Bureau during working hours. Both workers sustained bloody head injuries.

The intimidation tactics however did not deter Huang and his colleagues. On 9 July 2009, they tried to file a civil lawsuit with the Yuhua District Court in Changsha. The district court refused to accept it or provide a written explanation of its refusal, which, Huang pointed out, was in contravention of Article 112 of the Civil Procedural Law requiring that a court must, within ten working days of presentation, accept the case or explain in writing why it has refused to take it on. The lawyer representing the workers said he had never, in his long career, experienced such obstructionism by a district court.

We tried to get the case accepted five times at the Yuhua District Court, twice at the Changsha Municipal Intermediate People’s Court and once at the High Court. But all to no avail.

After initially refusing to explain why it rejected the workers’ lawsuit, the Yuhua District Court eventually cited a judicial quirk that gives district courts the right to refuse to accept any case involving reform of a state-owned enterprise. But the legal interpretation underlying this peculiar opt-out, Han said, referred to the problems arising from mass-layoffs in the great wave of SOE reform in the late-1990s, and had no bearing on this case, a matter of unfair dismissal on a false pretext. See CLB’s research report No Way Out: Worker Activism in China’s State-Owned Enterprise Reforms for more details.

With legal redress denied them, the 19 workers returned to petitioning. Throughout 2009, they did the rounds of petitioning offices in Ningyuan county, in Yongzhou, and in offices attached to the provincial High Court and the provincial People’s Congress. They even tried the petitioning offices of the Supreme People’s Court and the National People’s Congress in Beijing, but were always rebuffed.

In the end, as the frustration took its toll, some of the 19 workers agreed to accept the transfer to Hengyuan Rural Power Services, though all who did so “had been threatened,” Huang said. Even Huang’s wife, a teacher, was told “if you do not persuade your husband on this, there could be consequences for you.”

Faced with stonewalling wherever they turned, four of the workers decided to make a dramatic protest in Beijing. They arrived on 19 July, found lodgings, and for ten days prepared themselves for their ordeal. Some officials staying at the county’s Beijing office approached them and tried to dissuade them. But they could not prevent them, and on 1 August, the four carried out their action.

“All we want,” said Huang, “is for our case to be accepted, and for a just ruling to be handed down after fair legal process. We want the courts to clear our names.”

An exasperated Huang told Han that he now realised petitioning was pointless, as it never achieved anything.

If you take this route, you get pressured by the government. When we had just started petitioning, this official at the county-level petitioning office said, ‘if you go petitioning, empty your wallet, disperse your family, and brace yourself for the unexpected.’ When the authorities see that you are petitioning over something, they will try to push you into the formal legal channels. We were unable to use the formal legal channels. What else could we do?

Huang and his fellow protestors have now accepted CLB’s offer of legal help and are filing an administrative lawsuit against the Ningyuan Public Security Bureau for illegal detention.


Han Dongfang’s interview with Huang Qunyue was first broadcast in nine episodes in August and September 2010. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go to the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links

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