It should have been an open and shut case. 26-year-old steel worker Yu Jianhong suffered severe burns over 75 percent of his body when a cauldron of molten metal at the plant tipped over. Under China’s Work-related Injury Insurance Regulations, Yu should have been entitled to substantial compensation and long-term care but because the company never purchased the state-mandated insurance for its employees, the boss was left with the bill, and the boss simply refused to pay.
Yu Jianhong’s uncle, Yu Chunming, spent the next four years trying to get compensation for his nephew. In fact, it was only a decision by the local government in Tangshan to close the plant in 2010 that eventually freed up the funds to pay the Yu family.
In November 2013, Yu Chunming talked to CLB Director Han Dongfang about his family’s long struggle for justice and the reasons why the boss could so brazenly disregard his legal liability.
Yu Jianhong was one of four workers injured in the July 2006 accident at the steel plant. But while the other workers got the compensation they were entitled to, Yu was denied because, being the most severely injured, his medical expenses were the highest and the boss claimed he did not have the money. In fact, the boss stopped paying the medical bills (roughly 10,000 yuan per day) only a few days after Yu was admitted to hospital.
In desperation, the family decided to petition the local government.
I asked the hospital to give us a stretcher so that we could take my nephew to the municipal government office. If my nephew was to die, he would die at the government office. In the end, my family and I blocked the front of the government office for three or four days, but the officials would rather use the back door than get involved.
The family’s action did not move the government officials but eventually the manager of the factory came up with a makeshift solution: he made a deal with the hospital to treat Jianhong first and pay the bill later.
The boss is above the law
Yu Chunming successfully got his nephew's injuries classified by the labour department as work-related but this was not much help because of the company’s failure to purchase work-related injury insurance for its workers. Yu also managed to file an arbitration claim for damages against the company and was awarded 700,000 yuan. But once again, the boss simply refused to pay up.
The employer did not say much; he said he had the money; it was just that he did not want to pay us. He asked us to think of other means if we could.
Yu said the boss’ actions came down to just one word; profit.
If there is a profit, the boss takes it; if there is no profit, the boss absconds… If there is no work-related injury in one year, how much would the enterprise save by not taking out insurance?
Besides, Yu said, even if there was an accident, the boss could evade liability by either finding a new buyer for the business or avoiding payment. The ownership of the enterprise had in fact changed twice since the accident, he added.
The fact that the enterprise did not protect its workers, as required by the law, was common knowledge but Yu said workers were willing to accept it because of the lack of other job opportunities.
China is different from other places. This is a special place. China has a big population, if you don’t take the job, somebody else will.
Yu also blamed corrupt government officials for failing to ensure that the enterprise met its legal obligations. He claimed the government continued to grant new loans to the enterprise in spite of its long record of bad debts. Had it not been for the most recent loan, the enterprise would have gone bankrupt years ago he said. However, Yu said, the owner of the enterprise was a relative of a government official and hence the loan was not a problem.
Furthermore, he noted, the government had the duty under Article 22 of the Provisional Regulations on Collection and Payment of Social Insurance Premiums to fine enterprises that did not pay social insurance premiums, but of course the steel mill was never fined.
Yu could, in theory, have filed an administrative lawsuit against the local government for failure to exercise its duty of supervision but as he pointed out: “Because the government is involved, the court would not allow us to file the case." Besides, Yu, claimed, it was one of China’s “particular characteristics” that you cannot hold the government responsible for not doing its job or not enforcing the law.
No one can help
China’s lawmakers were no help, Yu said: “Everyone in the National People's Congress is a billionaire right? Who among them would speak up for the ordinary people? No one; not even one.”
Neither did he think the media was much help. “The media can enhance the publicity and visibility of the case but they cannot solve the problem; they are not the decision-makers.” Moreover, Yu said, the media was only really interested in money:
The media are really degenerate. Once you have posted something online, how many journalists would approach you? How many times would they report your story? After a few months, they lose interest in your story because they cannot take advantage of you anymore.
In the end, it was a local government policy to close down obsolete and highly polluting industries that came to Yu’s rescue. He discovered that the steel mill had been on the list of factories to be closed down for several years already but that nothing had been done. Yu urged the local authorities to enforce the closure and demolish the plant. Only in this way, would the capital in the business be freed up and the cash become available to pay the compensation owed.
The factory was finally demolished in early 2010 and the enterprise received 7,860,000 yuan in government subsidies as a result. But things did not go as smoothly as Yu Chunming had hoped. He soon discovered that he would have to wait in line to get compensation. The money was first seized by the Kaiping District People's Court to pay off workers' wages. The balance was then seized by the Intermediate People's Court to pay off a personal loan to the enterprise of 20 million yuan. However, Yu says he managed to get the money returned to the lower court and the family finally got 880,000 yuan compensation.
This was not quite as much as Yu had hoped for but he decided it was not worth pushing for more:
We should have got more than 1.1 million yuan. But since I had already put so much effort into this struggle, there was no point dragging it out any further.
Although Yu was highly cynical about the rule of law in China, the power of big business and the corruption of government officials, he was still cautiously optimistic about the Chinese legal system.
The most important thing is that although the law is useless, you still have to follow the procedures and formalities required by the law. If you miss the time limits, no department will take on the case.
The law gives you rights. It is up to you to exercise those rights.
This interview with Yu Chunming was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in ten episodes in November and December 2013.