At 11 o’clock on the morning of 24 October 2013, Zhao Shufen went to the canteen at the People’s Public Security University in Beijing to grab a quick lunch before heading back to work. But she never made it back to her station. Whilst reaching for an additional steamed bun, she was pushed to the ground by a security guard and suffered a spinal injury that left her paralysed.
Although she had worked at the university for ten years, Zhao was nominally employed by Zhongda Property Management Co, a company set up by the university in 2008 when the new Labour Contract Law came into effect. Management, backed by the university, refused to compensate her, claiming that an attack by a co-worker did not constitute a work-related injury.
Frustrated by her employer’s intransigence, Zhao installed her bed in the company office building on campus and stayed there in protest. In September 2014, she talked to China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang about her injuries and why her struggle for compensation had proved so difficult.
One bun too many
Zhao worked as a storage clerk looking after students’ belongings:
We started work at 7.00.am. Lunchtime is 11.00 to 11.30. After lunch I had to go straight back to work. Every day we only had a short window and so you had to eat fast. To save time, I got the main dish for myself and a colleague and he got the steamed buns. You get four buns for one yuan. But he only got me two. No one can make do with just two steamed buns; they’re so small. So I asked my colleague, ‘Why don’t you get me some more?’ He refused.
The guy serving the steamed buns, a security guard, was behind me. I told him that I did not get enough but he said, ‘You’re not getting any more.’ I though he was joking so I reached for them anyway. He tried to hit my hand away with his tongs. I got my hand out of the way but he suddenly grabbed my legs, and pushed me down and hit the back of my head with his fist.
After the attack I was taken to the security guards duty room. They sat me down and my colleague said that my lips were white. They had me lie down on the floor and then they called the police.
But the local police did not come.
It’s not far from my work, just by the canal, seven minutes’ walk or one or two minutes by car... Then management appeared, they had turned the police away, wanting to send me directly to hospital instead.
But no one knew which hospital Zhao should be sent too. Some hospitals claimed her insurance was not invalid; others took X-rays and referred her to another institution. In the confusion, Zhao was taken to five different hospitals in the downtown Beijing area. After being diagnosed with a spinal fracture, she was eventually transferred to the Peking University Third Hospital.
Zhao spent 34 miserable, hungry days in hospital.
On 29 November they wanted to withdraw my carer. I had no carer myself, so I just lay there immobile in bed, unable to do anything. I was bedridden until 5 December, and in these few days I had nothing to eat in the hospital and nothing to drink.
Her employer remained unmoved, insisting that the security guard was just doing his job when he beat her. Management did not apply for verification occupational injury on her behalf, or, initially at least, pay her medical treatment costs.
Her employer could afford to stonewall: Part of China’s vast and powerful public security network, the university knew no one was going to challenge its authority or its determination to handle matters in-house. Her assailant, for example, was initially detained for ten days, and then in July 2014, he began a three month “administrative detention” bypassing criminal procedures.
In the face of her employer’s stubbornness, Zhao took matters into her own hands. With the help of family and hospital workers, she set up her bed in the company offices on campus.
I was not getting any treatment in hospital, and the company did not apply for verification of occupational injury despite their promise to do so. They were doing nothing for me. So I parked myself and my bed in their offices.
The protest forced the company to make some concessions. It agreed to pay some of her medical costs, but “we have to pay the rest ourselves, and that means we have to borrow. We also get some contributions from social welfare organisations.”
Zhao’s pay had dried up in the spring of 2014. Her last pay cheque of 1,500 yuan, she said, came in March. Han pointed out that this was a violation of the Work-related Injury Insurance Regulations, which state that if an employee has to temporarily stop working and receives treatment for a workplace injury, the original wage and benefits package should be paid during the period of enforced idleness.
Moreover, Han said, the Work-related Injury Insurance Regulations make it clear that Zhao’s condition was, despite management’s claims to the contrary, a work-related injury. He pointed out that Article 16 states that there only three situations in which injuries suffered at the workplace and on work time are deemed not to be work-related: an injury or fatality resulting from criminal activity or breach of public order; injury or death resulting from drunkenness; and self-mutilation or suicide.
Han pointed out further that the company had failed to apply for verification of occupational injury within 30 days of an accident as stipulated by the Regulations. The company adopted a whole array of delaying tactics, including withholding her certificate of diagnosis on the grounds that they “did not know who to give it to.” Her x-rays were also withheld by the management and the duplicates seemed to suggest that her injury was an old injury or a pre-existing condition. Zhao had, incidentally, been certified as disabled after a car accident 20 years earlier in 1994.
In order to press her claim, Zhao hired a public interest lawyer but he withdrew from the case after a dispute over terms. Eventually, Zhao found another lawyer who initiated legal action in August 2014 but he was told by the court to “drop the case.” “I was back at square one,” Zhao said. “I had to sort everything out myself.”
She decided to sue the security guard who beat her:
On 26 August, my sister and my carer spent three hours at the courthouse. The court security guys would not let me in; they said that my bed was too wide. So I had to wait outside in the entrance all the time. A court official came out and told me to go to a subordinate court. My sister spent another hour or more at the court, and the official eventually told me I could only file a case on 8 October. When I asked him why, he said that the defendant was subject to an administrative detention order and I could only sue him after completion of his three month sentence.
Meanwhile, Zhao has also approached the women’s federation, the disabled person’s federation and the municipal government. All of them told her to take the matter up with her employer.
Han Dongfang’s interview with Zhao Shufen was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in four episodes in September 2014.