Calling the union to account: One woman’s decade of labour activism

07 May 2014

Like many labour activists today, Xu Ziqi’s journey started after suffering from a personal injustice in the workplace. In Xu’s case, she was unfairly demoted and had her pay cut after “offending” some of the bosses. But while the archetypal labour activist in China is a rural migrant labourer battling the factory bosses of Guangdong, Xu Ziqi was a manager at a state-owned enterprise in the north-western city of Lanzhou. Her official titles were senior engineer and deputy director of research administration.

Moreover, her case is interesting not so much because of the nature of her grievances but because of her determination to hold the enterprise trade union to account and make sure it did a good job in representing its members. In early 2014, Xu talked to China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang about her decade-long career as labour activist and litigant, which began, tangentially, in 2001 after a car accident.

Xu injured her hand but the injury was misdiagnosed by the Lanzhou University Hospital.

I had countless dealings with the hospital because of this. I had it all in writing and this is the only reason the hospital took the matter seriously. My partner helped me in all this. If he had not, I would not have got any attention because they saw me as just a silly girl. From this experience, I understood the problems faced by vulnerable members of our society, and I determined to do what I could to defend their rights.

The awakening of a labour activist

In a case lasting several years, Xu was able to prove that the hospital had made a mistake, and she eventually won her lawsuit. For this achievement, successfully defending her healthcare rights, she was awarded the Human Rights Hero title by the provincial government, although Xu felt that the commendation was more a reflection of her other rights activities, which she had kept the press abreast of, and which tied in with International Consumer Rights Day in China.

Whilst pursuing the lawsuit against the hospital, Xu also took legal action against her employer. In 2001, she had been effectively demoted, without losing her title, after “offending” officials in charge of a project at the enterprise called the Torch Project. After this clash, she was sent down to a new job working in the library. Her contract terms remained unchanged, but her salary dropped from an estimated 5,000 or 6,000 yuan, including benefits, to less than 3,000 yuan, little better than a production line worker’s salary. Initially Xu “put up with the situation,” because she wanted to avoid further unpleasantness with the managers who had transferred her, nor did she wish to disrupt the Torch Project.

But, the following year, Xu realised that there were numerous problems with her employment contract and that she had not been the paid the performance-based bonus elements of her package. Angry at her arbitrary demotion and now the contract issues and lack of transparency in her salary calculations, Xu demanded an explanation from her superiors. When her complaints were ignored, she took the matter up with the trade union and bosses. It wasn’t until 8 April 2004 that she got a written response.

I remember that day because that very morning, the medical lawsuit hearing began. In the afternoon, I sought out the enterprise bosses and got their response. I wasn’t happy with it and later I filed a complaint with the Labour and Social Security authorities. One of the things I complained about was that they had violated my right to information… I understand these things; I was quite interested in employment legislation and have always followed these matters in the newspapers, sought out documents about laws and regulations. I have followed this quite closely.

Her first step would normally have been to apply directly for labour arbitration. But this was subject to time limitations she could not meet, and so she went to the Labour Inspectorate, which at that time was not subject to any such restrictions. However, the investigation never really got off the ground:

The Inspectorate displayed a particularly bad attitude, they were only concerned with minimum wage guarantees, and said other wage-related matters did not concern them.

Workers have dignity too

Following this setback, Xu applied for arbitration, despite being over the time limit:

At the time, I was doing all this to get experience in employment litigation, and was not overly concerned what the result was. What was important was their attitude, so I set my demands at a pretty high level.

As expected, the case was dismissed on the grounds of exceeding the time limits. Xu appealed, and was again turned down, on the same grounds.

Summarizing her long ordeal on her blog Workers Have Dignity Too, Xu commented:

The main thing about this demotion business is that there should be regulations; everything should be based on predetermined rules. Legal amendments should be made. You should not be able to violate the law. We need a system of rules and regulations. The second thing is the absence of consultation. You get told to do this or that. If you are an employee, you have basically no right of consultation. I think the key point is that they do not respect the workers. They say the workers only have the work right to work, and no other rights. This also bears on trade union matters - the right to vote, to strike, to be elected.

Indeed, a major focus of Xu’s campaign was the lack support aggrieved workers at the enterprise received from the trade union. Xu said: “I was repeatedly in contact with trade union asking for information, but they did not provide any.”

Supervising the union

When Xu’s partner, for example, had his contract terminated by the company, Xu:

Went to the [enterprise] union chairman and I took a tape recorder I recorded him. I asked if [management] had gone through the union in sanctioning him. He said he didn’t know. So I applied for arbitration.

During this legal procedure, the union presented minutes of a meeting that purported to evidence union knowledge and endorsement of his removal from the payroll, backed by a workers’ caucus. Xu claimed that no such meeting occurred and that the minutes were falsified. Later, in 2009, Xu claimed the union was complicit in or failed to prevent the misappropriation of the enterprise’s housing provident fund.

Between 2001 and 2007 I was constantly involved in rights protection, and in the period, there were three cases of misappropriation [at the unit]. More than one million yuan in housing provident fund money disappeared.

She also accused management of illegally sanctioning three workers in May 2009 for leaving their shift without completing the handover. The three had been obliged to work for 15 hours on the trot, a violation of the Labour Law, and had handed over to a single non-regular worker - no others had been arranged. As a result, the three workers were taken off front-line duties and penalized for neglect of duty. This too reflected badly on both the management of the enterprise and the unions who were supposed to defend the workers, Xu said: “When things get that far out of hand, I think there is really a problem.”

Based on the union’s failure to defend the three workers, the false testimony allegations and its lack of involvement in other significant decision-making processes affecting workers, Xu made a formal request for removal of the union chairman and deputy chairman on grounds of incompetence. The union at first made no public response, but after a while, the leadership issued a statement to the effect that the deputy chairman would take over from the chairman who was “suffering from ill-health” and coming up to retirement anyway.

Xu, who suspects that her complaints were also a factor, then insisted that the matter should have gone before the union membership in assembly, and so, for a second time, she sought dismissal.

They should certainly have approached the union authorities to get this procedure initiated. When a union member proposes dismissal, a higher level has to convoke an assembly or meeting of member representatives, and after that, a motion has to be carried.

A one woman band

Asked by Han if in an anonymous vote she could have gathered enough signatures to get the dismissal, Xu expressed doubts. “The unit is now under pressure from the leadership, and the people are not so brave. The workers have family to look after and lack that kind of courage.”

Xu explained that she had been subject to management retaliation because of her activities. She said, for example, that she had been excluded from a four-person shortlist for a managerial vacancy without any explanation. Now coming up to retirement age, Xu continues her work in the library - in Han’s words, an activist single-handedly doing the job of the union in monitoring her employer’s legal compliance and safeguarding employee rights and interests.

My priority is constantly advocating for workers’ rights. I will continue to fight the company in the courts. I feel there are quite a few matters, for example, filling the hole in the housing provident fund, the lost interest payments, the corruption etc. I am thinking of preparing a questionnaire and trying to get workers trained in organisation and legal matters, as well as continuing the campaign against the union leadership.

In an encouraging sign, she said, a new general manager was appointed in June 2013, who had showed himself to be more inclined to follow proper standards in management.

I think this has been beneficial for the development of the enterprise. I sometimes think that the abandonment of rights at our enterprise is not only a violation of worker rights and interests but also damages the interests of the enterprise as a whole. In the end there is no guarantee of anybody’s rights, including management.

This interview with Xu Ziqi was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in nine episodes in February 2014.

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