During the 1950s, tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths and other artisans were organized into small-scale, workshop-like cooperatives and factories managed under what was known as the Second Light Industry system (二轻系统). There was no pension system at that time and workers turned over a set portion of their wages to the county handicraft industry administration as their retirement contribution. However, in the 1980s, local governments began to forcibly break up these small cooperatives and factories, often leaving their members out in the cold with no access to social security.
In February 2009, CLB Director Han Dongfang talked to Dai Deshu, a 67-year-old former tailor from the Yongchuan district of Chongqing about the long struggle of the thousands of workers discarded during the reform of the Second Light Industry system, and his own attempts as a representative of those workers to seek redress, during which time he was often detained and, on one occasion, beaten and tortured for five days.
Dai described how the workers in his region petitioned for several years, eventually forcing the municipal government to revise its policy. But even under the new policy, the workers still had to pay a huge lump sum just to get into the social security system - essentially paying for their own pensions.
Dai Deshu told Han that some 3,000 workers in six different counties were affected. “This has not happened in other places, only in our six counties,” he explained. At the age of 67, Dai was one of the younger workers; many were in their eighties or nineties, and some had even reached the age of 100. “Some are bedridden and can’t walk, and have no money for medical care. The government is not doing anything. I’m telling you, this is all true,” Dai continued. As one of six representatives, Dai represented about 400 older workers from Yongchuan, part of a group of just under 1,000 who were acting on behalf of all 3,000 workers.
“Just after Liberation, Chairman Mao gave us instruction on forming cooperatives,” Dai explained. “So, those of us in urban areas…the non-farming population who had skills in clothing, wood-working, automotive and farm equipment… artisans who lived in the cities and towns, we organized ourselves! Later we formed cooperatives or factories. This began happening in 1956,” Dai continued. Dai worked as a tailor, making clothes with 40 others at the Sunyuan Village Clothing Cooperative in Yongchuan county. The cooperative made clothing for the local population, charged a fee set by the government, and was responsible for its own profits and losses. The workers reported to the Yongchuan County Handicraft Industry Administration. The workers started out earning about 10 yuan per month, which grew over the years to 40 yuan. “Money was worth more then,” said Dai; “you could buy an egg with one cent. And one pound of grain was only five cents.”
“Listen,” Dai said, “at that time our nation, our Communist Party, was still like a child, wasn’t it? It was an infant. The workers…put in their effort to build socialism and pay in funds. This supported the government at the time. Why? Because our nation was not developed yet; it had no source of income. We were truly taxpayers at that time. So now, after decades of our hard work, those young people [in the local government] are not implementing the central government’s policies at all; that is going against the central government! And we can’t meet with the central government leaders…whatever they do, we have no recourse, because they are the government! The local government!”
According to Dai, the cooperatives were forcibly broken up between the late 1980s and 2001; the district government acting under instructions from the Chongqing municipal government. In 1989, the Chongqing municipal government issued temporary regulations, (Document 15), concerning pensions, which classified Dai’s group as rural workers under the jurisdiction of the rural People’s Communes and thus outside the scope of the urban collective enterprise system. Dai felt that these regulations contravened central government regulations. “This took our decades of contributions away from us,” said Dai; “State Council Document 66 from 1977 clearly provided that our labour insurance benefits would not change and that the original regulations should be implemented.”
“Another document, Number 10, was issued [by the Chongqing government] in January of 1993,” Dai went on. “It revoked Document 15 from 1989 and since then they’ve basically acknowledged that we were an urban collective enterprise. But when they corrected this historical error…for our six counties, they only corrected it for the younger workers, not the older workers. Because as soon as they agreed that it was an urban collective, older workers would get pension payments. And some of us have over 30 years of service, some over 40 years. I have over 30 years.”
“They acted like bandits”
“Back then,” said Dai, “we focused on the Party’s policies! They issued a document about retirement contributions in 1966 that stated we should save up funds ourselves. For when you got old, you put a little money there, and when you were 60, or 50 for female comrades, you could draw a pension.” Once the township government started to break up the cooperative enterprises, Dai went on, “they acted like bandits; the government froze our bank accounts. Neighborhood militia leaders and the industry and commerce and taxation bureaus forcibly knocked on our doors, confiscating the materials we had in our warehouses and auctioning off our building.” The cooperative at that time owned a workshop building, sewing machine equipment, and nearly 80,000 yuan in the bank.
Even after their property was confiscated in 1985, Dai and his coworkers kept on working until 1995, when the local government revoked their license. No benefits whatsoever were offered to the workers at that time, said Dai: “We didn’t understand the specific policies, and when the Social Security Bureau was established and we wanted to participate, they didn’t allow us to, saying we were a rural enterprise and state regulations did not allow us to participate…our six counties had given the government over 100 million yuan in funds…and they took our money, just like that.” Dai and his co-workers then had no other recourse but to retire.
Some of the workers continued to operate their own small businesses after their co-op’s license was revoked but the oldest among them, unable to work, have fallen on very hard times. A few workers have been able to rely on their children’s earnings, but, as Dai explained, most of their children had to leave home to work as migrant labourers in order to support their parents. Dai estimated that about 80 percent of the older workers are experiencing financial hardship.
A pension – but only after paying out tens of thousands of yuan
In January of 2006, the Chongqing municipal government reluctantly began paying the handicraft collective workers a small subsidy of 160 yuan per month, which was later raised to 230 yuan. “They acknowledged that they owed us,” Dai said, but, “in a big city like Chongqing, with such a high cost of living, how do you think we can get by on that?” The minimum wage in Chongqing is currently 680 yuan a month.
In 2006, the Chongqing government instigated a new scheme in which the retired workers would have to give the county government a lump sum of between 10,000 and 35,000 yuan in order to get a monthly subsidy of 450 yuan. Dai could only come up with 22,000 yuan, which he claimed would take him seven years to recoup. Some workers refused to pay the premium and many were simply unable to pay. “The older you are, the worse it is,” said Dai. “Us old people were useful…and those young people, who went to work later, they are now benefiting from our endeavours. Those of us who made a contribution to building socialism are being excluded, pushed out the door of the social security system.”
“It’s a one-party system. Whatever they say we have to do, because they are the government…Who can you go to,” Dai asked, “when you have paid in your money and now they say we’ve never received your payments?”
In spite the obstacles, Dai and his coworkers from the six counties did start to fight back. In 2003, after learning that three other counties had begun paying pensions to older workers, they protested at both the local Social Security Bureau and the Chongqing municipal government. “We cried out for justice at the People’s Assembly Hall, the government bureaus, and the High Court; that was on November 27 . We also went to the Martyrs’ Mausoleum to vent our complaints…we had made our case 30 times! The city of Chongqing still had no sympathy for us.”
“I’ve been taken away by the Public Security Bureau many times,” said Dai. “The most serious was on December 10 , when I returned to Yongchuan [from protesting in Chongqing] and there was a group that said they were from the Public Security Bureau, that I was making trouble in Chongqing, and they were there to detain me.”
Dai was first taken to the Yongchuan Public Security Bureau but was eventually allowed to leave. “I had just come out the main gate of the Public Security Bureau when there was a car, and a person came to meet me, saying, Mr. Dai, I’ll take you back home! I said, I don’t know you and I’m not getting in your car, I’ll take the bus. But I was pulled into the car and afterward I yelled as loud as I could…finally, before we had gone 200 meters, they blindfolded me.”
When they arrived at a farm in the mountains two hours away, “They put me in a dark room,” said Dai, “…they used an electric cattle prod until I fainted; they used a low voltage, not a high voltage, hitting me many times, and I fainted many times. Finally, when they saw I wasn’t eating, they injected me with glucose and took 60 yuan in cash that I was carrying as a deposit for the glucose injection. They were so cruel to me…I have high blood pressure and am diabetic, but they still didn’t spare me!” Dai never found out for sure who the people who detained and beat him were but he was confident they were sent by the Chongqing authorities. “I’m very careful now,” Dai continued. “I usually don’t go out anywhere alone, I go with several people.”
Dai and some of his coworkers made a trip to petition the Ministry of Labour in Beijing. “The Labour Ministry comrades were all sympathetic, but we could not give our letter to them. They didn’t dare to take it, because it would go on the record… They told us to come back another time, and I said, how can we come back? Where would we get the money?”
In addition, Dai’s group of older workers hired an attorney and brought a lawsuit against the Chongqing municipal government for its 1989 Document 15, which they asserted contravened central government rulings. The case was dismissed by the Chongqing Intermediate People’s Court; and the Higher People’s Court then upheld the decision on appeal. Dai and his coworkers were told that their suit targeted the wrong subject and that they could instead sue the Labour and Social Security Bureau, which implemented Document 15. But, said Dai, “This document issued by the city of Chongqing specifically mentioned us by name; it did not allow workers in the Light Industry system to participate in social security. Where are we wrong in suing Chongqing?”
Dai had joined the Communist Party in the 1980s but, he said, he and his coworkers now “don’t even have the money to pay the Party membership dues…so maybe we aren’t Communist Party members anymore.” The topic of the Party was painful to Dai: “I’m telling you, with this situation, when we hear the Communist Party brought up, in our hearts we…let’s not talk about the Communist Party, OK?”
Dai and his co-workers are determined to carry on regardless. “We will continue to struggle and will fight until we die,” said Dai, “This is what we told the court. As long as I have one breath left, we will struggle until the end…if we die, what is the difference? We don’t have anything to live on…We hope we can believe in the Party’s policies. We are looking for money now. Our legal procedures have failed, so we want to go to Beijing….we won’t leave; if we die, we can die in Beijing. We have made this resolution. There are 60- to 70-year-old comrades in our group, the only ones who can make it.”
Han Dongfang’s interview with Dai Deshu was broadcast in five episodes from February to March 2009. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links.