Young office workers seek way out of legal quagmire by appealing online

05 January 2012

Lu Juan spent three years as an office clerk at Guang’an Polytechnic Vocational and Technical College in Sichuan. In March 2010, she quit her job claiming that her employer had failed to pay any of her monthly social security contributions, and owed her three months' wages.

Lu estimated the total sum owed to her was around 10,000 yuan but because she had moved away to work outside the province she could not fight her case personally and asked her boyfriend, a civil servant with some legal knowledge and bureaucratic connections to represent her in the battle with her former employer.

The boyfriend, referred to here as Wang, described their struggle in an online posting in late 2010, and in January 2011 discussed the matter further with China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang.

Wang’s first move was to approach the social security authorities about the missing payments. This was a complicated matter. Lu’s first boss had refused to make the payments but had added some of the due amounts to Lu’s pay, telling her that she was better off this way, as it boosted her wages and she did not have to make any personal contribution. His successor, Wang said, simply did not understand the social security system. Not surprisingly, Wang was told by the social security officials that there were no records of Lu’s case.

No file, no hope

One of the people in charge told me, there is no file for her within the social security fund. He said ‘there is no personal file and there’s no name. What do you expect us to do?’

Next stop was the labour supervision department who told him that the college claimed it had no money. The department offered to mediate but later said that negotiation was not possible. The department then recommended that Wang and Lu apply for arbitration. The case was eventually accepted by the local arbitration committee, and after a few months of deliberation, it ruled in Lu’s favour on both counts — the wage arrears and the missing social security payments.

The college was ordered to pay back some the 1,200 yuan salary Lu was owed and to make the social security payments owed. However, the college stonewalled:

They did not appeal the ruling; they just refused to implement it. I telephoned them a few times and they said explicitly that they would not comply. They said it would be ‘difficult’ for them to make the social security payments now because my girlfriend had already left her job and gone away, and they were ‘tired’ with dealing with all these procedures.
I asked them for [a compromise] 4,000 yuan. But they refused… The maximum they were prepared to pay out was a few hundred yuan, to cover both matters.

Passing the buck

At this point, Wang decided to get the civil courts involved, and he filed a request for enforcement of the arbitration ruling with the local people’s court. However:

The director of the court’s enforcement bureau told me that ensuring that social security contributions are paid and enforcing compliance was the responsibility of the labour supervision authorities. Only if they cannot do this do the courts get involved, and the application must be filed by the labour authorities themselves. They showed me the regulations on the collection of social security… When I went back the chief of the local labour supervision department, he told me he knew nothing about this and referred me back to the court.

Han Dongfang pointed out that the labour supervision department does indeed have powers of sanction in cases of non-compliance like this: it can levy fines, or even revoke the offender’s business licence. But what they actually said to Wang was, “You are on your own. You are just one person. Unfortunately, you don’t have enough clout [to carry this through].”

Ultimately, the labour authorities took no action against the college apart from offering to negotiate, which was not even within their remit.

Wang was left with two options: filing a petition with the authorities (which rarely garners success) and going public through an online appeal. Wang decided on the latter approach first and posted his account in late 2010 where it came to the attention of the nearby Intermediate People’s Court of Linshui. The court seemed sympathetic at first.

I asked them if I could try administrative litigation to get the arbitration ruling enforced. At first they said I could target either the enforcement bureau of the local court or the labour authorities, since both had failed in their responsibilities. But after studying the matter in detail, they said that the arbitration process had nothing to do with the labour supervision authorities, and that I would certainly lose if I went to court. I would waste a lot of time and money and come away empty-handed.

It transpired in the end that any kind of legal action would probably be unsuccessful because Wang had failed to keep a copy of his original statement to the labour supervision authorities, and did not get a written acknowledgement of receipt. “I have no proof I ever sent the letter,” Wang acknowledged.

Limited success

However, his efforts at online publicity did pay off to some extent when the propaganda department of the county Party Committee forwarded his posting to the labour supervision department, and evidently arm-twisted Guang’an Polytechnic Vocational and Technical College into paying out 1,335 yuan to cover the wage arrears. The department left a reply to Wang’s post. The second part read:

With regard to the failure of the Guang’an Polytechnic Vocational and Technical College to transfer social security contributions for Lu Juan … we have arranged a due settlement, in line with the social security department’s payment baselines and total pay-out standards, in coordination with the court enforcement bureau, the labour supervision authorities and other authorities.

Wang said he had not yet seen this statement, due to pressure of work, and had not been able to collect any money.

Although Wang and Lu did not get everything they wanted, at least Han noted there was a positive development in that “pressure of public opinion can cause the courts to take you seriously.”

But Wang also said he feared that “I could end up hurting myself because I was working for a government agency. If you do something like that, you risk being fired from your unit or your promotion prospects could be put at risk.”


Han Dongfang's interview with Wang was first broadcast in four episodes in January 2011. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go to the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links.

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