Chinese Workers' Rights Stop at Courtroom Door

By Philip P. Pan, Washington Post, 28 June 2002; Page A01

SHENZHEN, China—They embodied all the power of the Chinese government, three judges in black robes sitting on a stage at the front of a spacious auditorium, issuing orders beneath the red-and-gold emblem of the People's Republic of China.

And yet they looked nervous.

There was reason for their concern. No sooner had Judge Lai Qiushan adjourned the hearing than the plaintiffs—189 unemployed, disheveled construction workers—started grumbling, then jumping to their feet and shouting loudly, some waving their fists in anger.

Make a ruling! Make a ruling! the workers demanded, as Lai and the other judges scurried off the stage. The Communist Party is corrupt! shouted one worker. There's no justice! cried another. Court police, far outnumbered by the unruly laborers, stood by without responding.

More than a year had passed since these workers began their legal struggle to recover wages they claim were stolen from them by their employer, a state-owned construction firm in this booming city just north of Hong Kong. At the time, the workers said, they had been swayed by the Communist Party's promises of legal reform, and believed they could get a fair hearing in court.

But now, after studying legal texts in bookstores and plotting strategy in secret meetings, after mediation, arbitration and two trials, after losing their jobs and nearly their homes, the workers had concluded the courts were rigged against them—and they were furious.

The unfolding of their legal battle, which began in March of last year and ended in defeat this month, helps explain why Chinese workers, once glorified as masters of a socialist state, are now so vulnerable to the market forces reshaping China's industrial landscape.

Capitalist-style economic policies introduced two decades ago have lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty. But the Communist Party's reluctance to pursue political reform with the same speed has left workers with few protections against deteriorating and sometimes deadly job conditions. Without elections, they cannot throw out local officials who allow businesses to ignore labor laws. Without the right to organize, they risk arrest if they form independent unions or go on strike.

The government has granted workers only one imperfect weapon to defend themselves during the country's bumpy transition from socialism to capitalism: filing a lawsuit. Over the past decade, the number of workers doing so has skyrocketed, from barely 17,000 in 1992 to nearly half a million in 2000, according to government statistics.

The surge in labor litigation, along with a sharp rise in the use of courts generally, presents China's leaders with a dilemma. The Communist Party itself fostered this new legal consciousness, setting up an extensive system of courts and relentlessly promoting its claims of legal reform. But it has refused to establish a truly independent judiciary, fearful that doing so might threaten its monopoly on power.

Most Chinese judges are party members, appointed with the approval of party leaders, required to carry out party decisions and as protective of local business interests as other local party officials. As a result, workers are learning, often through painful experience, that China remains a country ruled not by law but by individuals with power or connections.

We have good laws, but they don't apply to people with power, grumbled Li Shiwen, 31, one of the workers' leaders, after their defeat in court. Those people can do whatever they want. Second-Class Citizens

The workers lived in the shadow of the office towers they helped build, in cement blockhouses that reeked of wet laundry, sweat and rotting food. They were carpenters, bricklayers and concrete workers, young men recruited from the countryside in the 1980s to help transform a fishing village into China's newest metropolis.

The Shenzhen Jianye Construction Co. treated them as second-class citizens, paying them less than co-workers who were local residents. Many shared family and village ties in China's western province of Sichuan. They were old friends, distant relatives, neighbors.

So the news spread quickly when seven workers laid off by Jianye tried to collect their pensions last year and discovered the company had not been making the required payments. The workers asked: If the company wasn't making the payments, why had it been withholding 8 percent from their wages for a decade? And without pensions, what would they do if they, too, lost their jobs?

The company's answer stunned them: They were not employees of Jianye Construction at all. Instead, they were on loan from a firm in Sichuan, and Jianye had been making the deductions to pay that company's management fee.

The workers said they had never heard of the Sichuan company, and no one could find any evidence it existed. They said they had signed contracts with Jianye every year, and had been given residence permits showing they were company employees.

Local officials and lawyers said the workers appeared to be victims of a common scam that Chinese companies use to avoid buying insurance, paying payroll taxes or making pension payments for migrant workers.

This is typical, said one provincial official, who asked not to be identified. They pay off corrupt officials in the towns and villages to make it look like the workers are employed there. Most workers don't understand, or don't complain because the companies can easily replace them.

In the evenings after their shifts, the Jianye workers began to meet secretly at construction sites to discuss their options. Eventually, they picked four representatives to speak with management, men with humble backgrounds like their own but who seemed wiser and more articulate.

We didn't ask for the job, said Liu Quanyuan, 35, a fast-talking, quick-thinking carpenter who was one of the men selected, but the workers were counting on us.

First, they tried going to the company's official union, but were rebuffed. Next, they tried mediation with the company's personnel director, but he insisted the company owed them nothing. When they pressed harder, the workers said, company officials delivered a warning: If you want to take us to court, go ahead, but Jianye is a state-owned company and you won't win.

They told us to drop it, and they would let us keep working, Liu recalled. One of the company leaders even bragged that not everyone is equal before the law. . . . But we didn't believe him.

One reason was that they had read about the party's efforts to build a modern legal system. They had watched court dramas on television and had seen news reports about workers who sued their employers. They also heard firsthand from friends who had won a case against a private construction firm in Shenzhen.

At the time, the workers said, they were not afraid of taking on their bosses, even if their bosses worked for the government. They believed the law was on their side. Even if the government controlled the courts, the workers said, they doubted it would blatantly ignore the law.

We knew it wouldn't be easy, but we believed that as long as we were right, we would win, said Yang Jian, 29, the youngest of the representatives. We knew something about the law, and thought we could use it to get our money back. Bookstore Research

On their days off, some workers began taking 40-minute bus rides to Shenzhen's largest bookstore, Shenzhen Book City. In the legal section on the second floor they read as much as they could about China's labor laws, often arriving early and staying until the store closed at 9 p.m.

We couldn't afford to buy the books, so we would just stay there, reading and memorizing or copying down the important parts, said Liu, who, like the other representatives, never completed high school. The more we read, the more excited we became. We were shocked. Almost all of our rights were being violated.

For example, he said, the workers realized the company had never paid them overtime as required, even though they routinely worked weekends and holidays.

In April of last year, the workers took their case to the Shenzhen Labor Arbitration Committee. Arbitration is required in all labor disputes before a case can go to court, and the government says workers win most cases. But a former arbitration official here, who asked not to be identified, said many arbitrators are paid off by local businesses.

If you visit any of the local labor offices, you'll see the arbitrators driving fancy cars, he said. Where do you think they get the money?

Four months after the workers filed their complaint, an arbitrator ruled against them. The workers filed an appeal two days later and began looking for a lawyer.

They said they visited more than a dozen law firms before settling on the cheapest lawyer they could find. They paid him $3,600 and agreed to give him 10 percent of any money he won for them.

In December, a judge handed the workers a partial victory. He ordered Jianye to return the 8 percent deductions for the previous eight months and pay six months' of overtime. He also said the workers were Jianye employees, entitled to one month's severance pay for every year they had been with the company.

The workers considered appealing because they wanted all the deductions returned. But their lawyer talked them out of it. Under the judgment, each worker would receive more than $2,000, nearly what they earned in a year.

But the company never paid. Instead, it filed an appeal.

In China, almost any case can be appealed or retried, with or without grounds. According to lawyers, judges and legal scholars, this means those with power usually ignore court rulings and search for a way to overturn them, often through bribes or connections.

As the appeal process dragged on, the workers started to worry. They said Jianye stopped paying them, then offered new contracts to those who abandoned the lawsuit. A few workers agreed, but most quit. They said they had trouble finding new jobs, partly because the company ordered its subsidiaries and partners not to hire them. It also sharply raised their rents and threatened them with eviction.

Most of us haven't worked since the judgment in December, Liu said in mid-April, running his hand through his hair in frustration. We face great difficulties now. Workers come to see me every day for help. More than a hundred of us have children. Some of us have sick parents or other relatives. What are we supposed to do?

As desperation set in, the workers resorted to extralegal tactics. In late March, after a hearing during which the judges prevented them from speaking, the workers refused to leave the courtroom for more than four hours, witnesses said.

It was clear the company was influencing the court. We decided to put some pressure on them, too, one worker said later. We weren't afraid. There were 189 of us, so what were they going to do to us?

But the workers' chosen representatives were nervous. They urged the others to obey the law, telling them not to give up on the legal system. Privately, they said they were worried about getting arrested. Chinese police routinely detain workers' leaders when suppressing labor unrest.

We agreed to be their representatives, but we can't held be responsible for all their actions, Li said. We have to be careful. We have children and families.

Workers' Last Stand

The final legal battle occurred when the court reconvened in May.

This time, the judges permitted the workers to speak. Some froze and stammered. Others could not speak Mandarin, the national language, and needed their colleagues to translate their testimony from Sichuanese.

Nonetheless, the workers presented a strong case, often citing specific articles in labor laws and regulations. They showed the judges copies of contracts indicating that many of them had been employed by Jianye for more than a decade. They also pointed out that some of them were not from Sichuan, undermining the company's claim that they were all on loan from a Sichuanese firm.

After Lai, the judge, ended the hearing without making a ruling, the workers shouted as she and the other judges slipped out of the room. Reached by telephone, Lai denied feeling any pressure from government or party officials, or from the workers. She referred other questions to court authorities, who refused a request for interviews.

Hu Jinchao, Jianye's personnel director, rejected the workers' claims and denied trying to influence the court. We just followed the laws, he said. It was the workers who tried to pressure the court. They are the ones who protested and staged a sit-in.

The workers' last act of civil disobedience occurred on June 5. Lai was scheduled to make a ruling, but when the workers showed up, a secretary told them the case had been continued for three months, they said.

Frustrated and angry, they marched outside and blocked traffic on a major road, witnesses said. Afraid the police would arrest them, the workers' four representatives said they jumped into a cab and sped away.

But the other workers stood in the street for more than 30 minutes, with a long line of trucks and cars building up behind them, witnesses said. Police pulled some off the road but refrained from using force. Eventually, Liu said, he called the workers on his cell phone and persuaded them to leave.

One week later, the court scheduled a hearing to announce a decision. The workers expected the worst. Employees in the company's payroll office had already been told to prepare small payments for them, the workers said. They saw this as proof the court had been colluding with the company.

When the workers arrived, more than 100 police officers were waiting. The workers filed into the building slowly, walking through a metal detector and between two rows of stern-looking officers. Dozens of officers were in the courtroom, too, including two who filmed the workers with video cameras.

Lai and the other two judges walked in and immediately read a statement warning the workers not to disrupt the proceedings. Then they handed a pile of papers to the lawyers and left the room. A police officer called out each worker's name, handing out the ruling one copy at a time.

It took a while for them to sort through the legal language, but then the workers realized Lai had denied almost all their requests. Instead, her ruling said, Jianye would pay about $600 to each worker—voluntarily, not because she was ordering the company to do so.

Surrounded by police, the workers groused as they left the courthouse, too frightened to attempt another protest. Even the workers' representatives, once so confident in the legal system, now expressed anger and regret.

The judge was paid off, Liu muttered as he left the courthouse.

The laws are good, but the legal system doesn't work, he said later. If we had to do it again, we would just protest.