At the turn of the century, the Chongqing municipal government embarked on an ambitious programme to restructure all its state-owned textile enterprises. Tens of thousands of workers were laid-off with the stated aim of improving efficiency. At the Chongqing No. 1 Cotton Mill, management pressured workers into signing “voluntary” redundancy agreements. Most refused and around 3,000 workers were laid off against their will.
The then Prime Minister Zhu Rongji promised laid-off workers they would be retrained and given at least three new job offers over the next three years. However, workers laid off from the Chongqing No. 1 Cotton Mill claimed they never received training or job offers and that they’d had to rely on a monthly living allowance of just 235 yuan, which, despite soaring food prices, had never increased.
The laid-off workers repeatedly petitioned the municipal and provincial governments, and filed lawsuits in the courts. However, their petitions were unsuccessful and their lawsuits were not accepted.
In February 2008, CLB Director Han Dongfang talked to two workers, Mr. Zhang and Mr. Pan, laid off from the Chongqing No. 1 Cotton Mill in 2003, as well as a former supervisor at the mill, Mr. Wang.
Pan, who was 59 years old at the time of the interview, had worked for 38 years. He claimed that formally retired workers in Chongqing would normally get at least 1,500 yuan per month in retirement benefits. “This subsidy is very unfair,” he said. “We’ve worked for decades, yet our monthly living allowance has never gone up.”
“When workers in government departments get laid off, they continue to get their salary until retirement. But we were not treated like this by our bosses. They did not care; they dumped us on the scrapheap, giving us a pitiful subsidy of 200 yuan to 300 yuan per month.”
Zhang had worked for 34 years when he was laid off in 2003. He claimed that if he had been formally retired, he would get about 1,300 per month.
Despite the mass lay-offs between 2000 and 2003, Wang, the former supervisor, said economic efficiency at the mill did not improve. Indeed, he said: “The more they laid off workers the worse it got, until the company finally went bankrupt in July 2006.”
Pan said the factory bosses were not interested in improving efficiency, but simply in lining their own pockets. The company’s assets were sold off to private businesses with no accounting made public, and with none of the proceeds going to the laid-off workers, as required by law.
Prior to being laid off, Pan and a group of co-workers appealed to management to keep their jobs or at least be given a better severance package, but they were met with indifference: “They didn’t care. They told us we could either quit or we could get castrated.”
After being laid off in 2003, Zhang, Pan and their colleagues applied for numerous different jobs, but were always unsuccessful, being told they were too old.
Zhang and hundreds of colleagues repeatedly petitioned the municipal and provincial governments. Zhang and his older colleagues demanded decent retirement benefits, while their younger colleagues sought re-employment. “We said it was not legal, it was unfair. But they didn’t solve our problems.”
During the course of their petitions, some of the workers’ leaders were detained. They were sentenced to 15 days administrative detention, but were released after just one day when the workers protested. “We wouldn’t take it lying down. We sought out the government. One, two hundred of us rose up and appealed. Then they released our representatives.”
Despite their intense petitioning, the laid-off workers have still not seen a rise in their living allowance. “Prices have gone up,” Zhang said. “The government doesn’t care. We need to rely on relatives and friends to make ends meet.”
Zhang said pork prices had risen by 100 percent and oil prices had increased by nearly 80 percent over the last two years. “I have a child at university. Tuition and living expenses there come to 15,000 a year,” he said.
Zhang had already incurred debts of 20,000 yuan, and even though he would be eligible for a pension the following year at the age of 60, he had not been able to keep up with his pension contributions and was thus disqualified from receiving a full pension.
Zhang said he and his colleagues refused to give up and had now broadened their campaign to include other factories: “We have to fight for our rights. If we don’t fight for what is lawfully ours, the government won’t simply give it to us. It’s not just our factory anymore. Now, we’re liaising with several textile mills. If everyone is united and cooperates, then we can finally gain our lawful rights.”
Zhang vowed that he would fight for the rights of laid-off workers in Chongqing until the day he died: “The government wants to grind us down. But so long as breath lasts, we laid-off workers won’t give up. We already have nothing, so what is there to fear?”
Zhang said that the workers had tried on several occasions to hire a lawyer to fight on their behalf. Many lawyers were not willing to confront government officials, while the one lawyer who did take on their case saw the lawsuit rejected by the court. Eventually Zhang accepted Han Dongfang’s offer of pro bono legal assistance and the case has now been taken up as part of China Labour Bulletin’s Labour Rights Litigation Project.
Han Dongfang’s interview with Zhang, Pan and Wang was broadcast over six episodes in February and March. 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.