China's workers – no longer a privileged class

As state-owned enterprises become private, workers increasingly face layoffs and poor working conditions

When Wang Lijun lost two coworkers on the job – one who fell to his death while cleaning train windows and another who died from exhaustion – he decided it was time to speak up. Rounding up 16 of his workmates at the Harbin Railway Bureau in the northern Heilongjiang Province, Mr. Wang organized a peaceful protest against 17-hour shifts and dangerous work conditions – and promptly lost his job.

That was 20 months ago. Today, he is still out of work and deep in a prolonged lawsuit against the state-run Harbin Railway Bureau.

"It is probably hopeless," the sinewy Wang says defiantly, "But I am taking my case to the Supreme Court."

For more than 80 years, China's Communist Party considered itself the vanguard of the proletariat, its 80 million state employees guaranteed jobs for life and a cradle-to-grave welfare system. But as the country's socialist market economy has evolved into a bosses' paradise in just a decade, workers like Wang are no longer treated like a privileged caste.

"The workers are not protected anymore," says Australian researcher Anita Unger, author of the new book "China's Workers Under Assault." "And things are getting worse."

According to the government, at least 24 million workers have been fired from their jobs in state-owned enterprises, which are quickly been transformed into private enterprises as the state sells off its shares.

The situation may only get worse, some workers say, if President Jiang Zemin has his way at the 16th Communist Party's Congress in November.

Mr. Jiang wants party members to agree to admit capitalists into its ranks under the rubric of his new political theory – "Three Representatives" or "San Ge Dai Biao" – which offers a rationale for China's economic transition.

But some workers fear that such a move would further distance the party from their interests.

"As long as party officials all support each other, how will things for the workers change for the better?" says Wang.

A decade ago, a visitor to any state-owned factory or shop would have found half the work force playing cards or attending a political meeting – if not absent on a statutory two-hour lunch break.

Then, long overtime was mostly a feature of export sweatshops rather than state-owned enterprises. The most vulnerable workers were migrants from the villages employed in foreign invested factories making shoes, toys, and clothing.

But as state-owned enterprises become private, poor working conditions and sudden layoffs are increasingly common, analysts say.

"Even state workers are now on short term work contracts. This means they are often not fired exactly, the contracts are just not renewed," Dr. Unger says. "Each time, there is a change of ownership at a state-owned enterprise, there are massive layoffs and then the new employers often prefer migrant workers."

The International Labor Organization estimates that Chinese workers have five times as many accidents in the workplace as US workers, although activists say this figure is too conservative.

Independent unions are illegal in China, and although state workers can appeal to the official state-run trade union, they often receive little help. "The trade unions are not as assertive as people would like them to be – in the 1980s they were a lot more important," Unger explains.

As a result, workers – especially state workers, who tend to be much more aware of their rights – are increasingly taking their complaints to the courts. Their cases usually revolve around pay, unfair dismissal, or injury.

China's workers are entitled to a maximum 44-hour working week with at least one day off. However, "China's labor laws are quite simple," says Mr. Ye Yunhua of the Legal Assistance Center of the Legal Research Institute at Qinghua University in Beijing. "They protect workers from overtime, but they do not stipulate what should be done in case of injury or overwork."

"Labor lawyers want to see better laws so these poor workers and their families can be compensated," says Mr. Apo Leong, executive director of Asia Monitor Resource Centre, a Hong Kong-based NGO helping to defend workers.

Wang first appealed the loss of his job to the Ministry of Railways in Beijing, but soon found himself in bigger trouble.

"I told them our bosses are breaking labor laws to put more money into their own pockets," he says. "They said they would help, but when I got home the police came for me." For 23 days, Wang says, the police kept him in jail and beat him, trying to extract a confession until the official "Worker's Daily" ran a story on his plight.

Wang then took his case to the Beijing Intermediate Court. Because he couldn't afford lawyers, he appealed to a legal-aid service run by students at Qinghua University. The Beijing Intermediate Court ruled against Wang this summer.

He is now appealing to China's Supreme Court, hoping to set a legal precedent and ensure that China's rudimentary labor laws apply to railway workers too. "I am disappointed but I am not giving up," he says.

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