Manager killed during protest over steel plant privatization

26 July 2009

Workers at a state-owned iron and steel plant in Jilin attacked and killed a senior manager during a protest at the proposed privatization of the factory on Friday 24 July.

Thousands of workers at the Tonghua Iron and Steel factory staged a demonstration on Friday morning after news spread that the Jianlong Group, China’s largest privately owned steel company, would buy a majority stake. Jianlong had taken a minority stake in Tonghua in 2005, laying off several thousand workers in the process, but only sought to increase its stake in Tonghua after the company turned a profit earlier this year.

Some workers attacked Jianlong representative, Chen Guojun, who was reportedly going to take over as general manager, with bricks and clubs and later prevented police and ambulance crews from coming to his aid.

The South China Morning Post quoted a Tonghua public security bureau officer as saying; “Workers from Tonghua would not allow ambulance and medical practitioners to enter the building to rescue Mr Chen and he died.”

The death of Chen Guojun is the latest in a series of violent incidents at factories in China this summer. On 15 June, two Taiwanese managers at a plant in Dongguan were attacked and killed by a disgruntled employee, and 11 days later two workers were killed in a mass brawl between Uighur and Han employees in a toy factory in Shaoguan.

However, as CLB showed in its new report on the workers’ movement in China, labour disputes only rarely escalate into violence. Of the 100 incidents in 2007 and 2008 studied in the report, only five involved attacks on company property or management personnel.

The incident at Tonghua reflects the deep anger felt by many employees at China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) at their treatment during restructuring and privatization. Although the majority of SOEs were privatized in the late 1990s, the after effects are still felt today and many other SOEs, like Tonghua, are still going through the process of restructuring.

Workers routinely complain at a lack of transparency and management accountability and often accuse SOE managers of corruption and of embezzling state assets. Moreover, workers are usually laid off en masse with derisory compensation and no prospect of reemployment while factory managers attend banquets and ride around in luxury cars. See Going it Alone: The Workers’ Movement in China, 2007-2008, pp.20-22 and No Way Out: Worker Activism in China’s State-Owned Enterprise Reforms, published by CLB in 2008.

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