Railway workers “retired” on medical grounds fight back

27 June 2008

In the late 1990s, China’s state-run railways embarked on a massive economic rationalization and cost-cutting drive that led to hundreds of thousands of railway workers being laid-off or given early retirement.

In northeast China, the Shenyang Railway Authority devised a novel scheme whereby workers were retired “on medical grounds” even though many had never taken a day’s sick leave in their lives.

In 1997 and 1998, Shenyang forced workers to visit railway hospitals and select a disease or disability from a list of six that would then be cited as the grounds for their early retirement. Over two years, more than 38,000 workers were “retired” in this manner. In December 2007, CLB Director Han Dongfang talked to two “retired” workers, Song Yuman and Liu Zhongwen, about the retirement scheme and the problems it had subsequently caused them in terms obtaining the benefits they were entitled to.

Song Yuman described how the Shenyang Railway Authority conned or coerced workers into accepting retirement on medical grounds even though the workers knew the measure was not legal. “They misled us by saying that it was much better for us to retire immediately in 1997, because we could get five to six hundred yuan per month. If we retired after 1998, we would only get three to four hundred yuan… They basically said that we would no longer be employed and had to apply for early retirement on medical grounds. Some workers were told that if they did not fill out the paperwork, they would be dismissed immediately. One employee who refused to sign, Wang Meiliang, was sent packing with just four months living expenses.”

Select your disease

“In the end it was impossible to resist any further, and we had to retire. There was a well-organized procedure. In the Xuejia factory, for example, they did not even bother sending people to the hospital for a check-up, they simply selected one of the six pre-listed illnesses on the form, while sitting in the boardroom of the Jinzhou Rolling Stock Department. You had to choose one of the six diseases even if you were not suffering from it. After you circled it, the doctor stamped the form. Did you know that there were no medical instruments used in this physical examination?”

In the city of Tumen, Liu Zhongwen said: “We were each given a form by the work unit, which we had to bring to the hospital, and after making a payment of ten yuan, the form was stamped and that was it! We did not even have to select an illness. I did not know what illness was suitable, so I asked the doctor to select it. The doctor said, ‘Which illness should I write?’ I said, ‘I don’t know what illness, you choose whatever is suitable.’”


Han: How was your health at that time?


Liu: My health has always been quite good.


Song: Even now, Liu’s health is still very good; my health is very good too.

Liu: No illness whatsoever! 
Song: Yes, no illness whatsoever!

Liu said he tried to talk to his supervisor about the blatant fraud being committed by the Authority but that the supervisor became evasive. Song explained that: “In 1992, Shenyang Railway Authority had three pre-requisites for early retirement; an application from the individual; the second was to be on sick leave for more than six months, and the third was to obtain an appraisal from one level, before a diagnosis by the second level.


Liu claimed that all the personal files and documents falsified in the “retirement” process had subsequently been destroyed. “First, there was the application letter written by the workers themselves. Second, there was the medical history - the illness selected by each of the workers. Third, there was the false physical examination certificate. Fourth, there was the labour appraisal certificate. These documents were all in the files, made during that period. Fifth, they issued a postponement order when you left. Sixth, there was the retirement insurance approval form. There were six documents in total, and all six were removed from the personal files.

Illegal retirements must be rectified

In 1999, the State Council ruled that those workers who had applied for early retirement without meeting the legal pre-requisites would be disqualified, and those departments that had violated state regulations in arranging early retirements should settle the matter through the appropriate channels. Consequently, Song said, about 600 “retired” workers traveled to Beijing to petition the government. As a result of these petitioning activities, those workers who had “retired” in 1998 had their cases resolved but the early retirees from 1997 remained in limbo. Song said there had been a “verbal agreement” to resolve the 2,600 or so remaining cases from 1997 but when the new boss of the Shenyang Railway Authority, Wang Lianzhu, arrived in 2003, he immediately adopted a policy of three no’s, “no meetings, no investigation and no resolution.”


The workers sought and obtained backing from the petitions office, the Liaoning Federation of Trade Unions and the Labour Department. In addition, the workers obtained evidence that similar frauds in Wuhan and the Inner Mongolian capital Hohhot, had been successfully resolved. But, they said, Wang Lianzhu remained adamant in his refusal to deal with the 1997 cases. Indeed, when the workers pushed harder, Wang Lianzhu responded by getting the Public Security Bureau involved.


“Each time we petitioned, Shenyang always called on the PSB. They came to our homes to curtail our movements,” Song said. When ever we went to Beijing to petition, they mobilized the police. On 20 September 2004, many of us went to Beijing, and four of us were detained. Chang Guangwen of Jinzhou was detained for 15 days. Comrade Yang Fengying of Tonghua was detained for 15 days, I was detained for 10 days. Comrade Jijian was detained for seven days. He was an ex-classmate and ex-colleague of Zhang Wanli, the secretary of the Discipline Inspection Commission, so he was detained for fewer days. Everywhere we went, the local PSB curtailed our movements. Even now, they are still keeping us under surveillance, forbidding us to travel to Beijing.The other day, I called the director of the Shenyang bureau’s petition department, but he said Wang Lianzhu is brandishing his Three-Nos, there’s nothing we can do!


The key problem for the workers “retired” in 1997, Song explained, was that they were currently receiving between 300 yuan and 400 yuan less than the 1998 retirees. “If we retire this year as mandated by the legal retirement age, how much would be the difference? It could be about 800-900 yuan.

Workers denied hundreds of yuan a month

“I receive 930 yuan a month now. If I calculate my retirement as starting from 2004, I should be receiving around 1,300 yuan. Those from 1998 were reimbursed over 10,000 yuan each. Some female colleagues were given a little less. There were some who received between 7,000 to 9,000 yuan; those who got the most, like the workers in the mechanical department, they got as much as 13,000-14,000 yuan!”


“The old age pension is increasing every year,” Song pointed out. “My retirement was supposed to be in 2004, and the difference is over 300 yuan. If it was 2005, the difference would be over 400 yuan; in 2006, over 600 yuan, and for Liu who was supposed to retire in 2007, the difference would be 700 to 800 yuan.”


The workers calculated that the 1,000 or so “retirees” still attached to the Shenyang Authority were probably owed more than ten million yuan in total. Given the Authority’s financial position, this amount should be no problem, they said, but Wang Lianzhu still refused to compromise.


He’s very stubborn. Also, have you noted that the current Minister of Railways is Liu Zhijun? When Liu was the chief of the Shenyang Authority in 1994, he came up with an early retirement scheme. Resolving the 1997 problem might spur the 1994 retirees into action and then the minister would have to intervene.”

Harassed by the police

Liu Zhongwen revealed that when he tried to post information about the dispute on his own website, the PSB intervened and accused him of collaborating with foreign forces. “After I uploaded the information, the Falun Gong and US-based Infinite Universe published my material. As a result, they said, I had foreign connections, and that I had sent our information abroad, linking up with the Falun Gong and Infinite Universe. On the basis of this charge, I don’t know how many hours were spent investigating me. They came from all over the place, Jinzhou, Dandong, Jilin and Shenyang.”


“I was called to the Shenyang PSB at 9 o’clock one evening. I had an idea of what it was about, so I didn’t go. A police car came and took me to the PSB. They questioned me until midnight. I told them the situation was different from what they had understood. I did not liaise with outside forces, nor did I communicate with the Falun Gong, it was not of my doing, I only posted my article on the website. It was on the website, but I wasn’t the one who copied and pasted it elsewhere,” Liu said.


“They asked me why I had uploaded the information. I said I did it to obtain media support, I had no other motive. Moreover, my petition is entirely legitimate. Petitioning online is also legitimate, and is entirely in accordance with the law.


Song added: “It was the Jinzhou PSB that was trying to frighten us, saying we were in touch with the Falun Gong. When I spoke with the PSB chief there, I told him to show me the material from Liu’s website, so we could see which belonged to the Falun Gong website. In the end, he admitted it was not Falun Gong material. I said, Why did you call it Falun Gong then? Huh? Using this name just to scare us?’”


When the PSB failed to obtain any evidence that Liu had been in contact with the Falun Gong, they accused him of illegally obtaining funds to set up his “Reitired Workers” website. Liu was detained on swindling charges. “Someone from the Shenyang Railway PSB came, and glared at me. He banged on the table, and told me to give an honest account. How much money did you swindle? I said I have not done anything of the sort. He tried to frighten me, and I turned it around on him. I said that’s all you have got? Who are you trying to frighten?


Song explained: “It’s that wild boar, Wang Lianzhu. He can’t be reasoned with… He is still using the PSB to track our movements, not allowing us to petition. He’s even afraid that we will go to the capital – the truth is, he’s in the wrong, you know?

Suing the Minister of Railways

In response to the PSB crackdown on their petitioning, in 2006, the workers took the bold step of trying to sue the Minister of Railways, Liu Zhijun, for administrative misconduct, however, the courts refused to accept the case. Several workers from the 1998 group of “retirees” had successfully filed a law suit against the Ministry of Railways, and Song hired the same lawyer but his case was rejected on a procedural technicality. “I asked the Railway Ministry for an administrative review, you know? But the ministry did not give me a resolution letter of administrative review, only a suggestion letter. I brought a case at the Beijing Intermediate Court against Liu Zhijun, alleging wrongdoing at the ministry. In the end, the presiding judge said that the law on administrative review stipulates that we must be given a resolution letter. And because we were given a review suggestion letter, it was outside the Court’s jurisdiction.”


Han suggested that instead of trying to sue the minister, the workers should try to build a case against their immediate superiors, those who tricked and coerced the workers into signing the early retirement agreements. The workers agreed that this might be a more productive approach.


Han Dongfang’s interview with Song Yuman and Liu Zhongwen was broadcast in ten episodes in December 2007 and January 2008. 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.

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