Leaner Factories, Fewer Workers Bring More
Labor Unrest to
Leaner Factories, Fewer Workers Bring More
Labor Unrest to
By ERIK ECKHOLM
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
As the overhaul of
enters a decisive phase, public protests by displaced workers are becoming
larger and angrier than ever, with huge demonstrations breaking out this
month in several places.
In one dramatic example, every weekday since March 1, tens of thousands of
irate workers have
gathered outside the headquarters of
glorified oil field, at Daqing in the far northeast, charging official
deceit and betrayal in what some experts have called the largest protests
over labor issues since the Communist Party took power in 1949.
Labor disputes over money and benefits, often peppered with charges of
have become frequent as
shed its bloated state- owned factories. If reports in recent days from
Daqing and several other sites are any guide, the scale of unrest is
likely to grow in
the months and years ahead as
industries to competition under World Trade Organization rules.
Millions of middle-aged workers, in particular, say they feel betrayed by
a system that long gave them honor and security, if little money, and that
now seems intent on discarding them.
The unrest has not threatened the rule of the Communist Party, in part
because the police crush any efforts to form independent unions or to
complaints across regions.
focused on the stubborn poverty in the countryside, where a majority of
the people live, as a source of instability. But the growing disaffection
of older urban workers, too, is a major preoccupation and the government
has had only limited success in building new social safety nets.
On Sunday in
antiriot force, told
an officers conference that with
the W.T.O. the police must prepare for an increase in "mass incidents,"
the People's Armed Police News reported today.
Workers at the giant Daqing oil complex, who were long exalted as national
heroes, say they were pressured to accept severance agreements that will
strand many in poverty, facing old age without medical insurance or
"We've been cheated and misled," said a woman who gave her last name, Liu.
Ms. Liu, who is in her 30's, took the buyout in December 2000 along with
more than 50,000 other workers and, like most of them, has been unemployed
Outraged workers in the aging industrial city
northeast, have mounted growing waves of protest. Earlier this month, in a
rare example of cooperation among workers from different industries, 5,000
workers from six bankrupt factories held demonstrations, demanding more
than a year's worth of unpaid wages and pensions and charging that
officials had embezzled the funds.
The standoff there grew today as an estimated 30,000 workers from 20
different factories gathered, demanding the release of a leader who was
arrested Sunday in violation of a public pledge by the authorities,
according to residents and outside rights monitors.
At the Daqing oil fields, workers say they were deceived by managers when
they agreed to the buyouts, sundering the traditional lifetime
worker-factory relationship. Company executives, told to downsize, had
warned the workers of imminent corporate bankruptcy and the likelihood of
massive layoffs with little or no compensation. So more than 50,000
workers, of more than 200,000, took severance offers of up to $500 for
each year of service.
The sums, which were set without negotiation, seemed large at the time,
workers say, and were much higher than the national norm in such
situations. But after more than a year of unemployment and rising
expenses, many of the former employees feel scared and vulnerable.
The protests began when the Daqing Oilfield Bureau announced it would stop
paying the former employees' heating bills. It also said they would have
to make large annual payments themselves if they wished to keep their
medical and old- age insurance. On some days, more than 30,000 Daqing
workers have filled the streets, witnesses say.
"We've discovered that there's a big difference between what we were
promised and what we've been given," said Ms. Liu, who spoke nervously
after receiving a phone call from a reporter. "The managers were very
persuasive and convinced us this was the best deal we could get."
Han Dongfang, an exiled labor advocate, called the Daqing demonstrations
"probably the largest protests over labor issues since 1949." Mr. Han, who
spent time in jail for organizing an independent union in 1989, runs the
The Daqing workers tried to organize but some leaders were detained and
others are now in hiding, Mr. Han said. But the demonstrations have
continued in the oil city, built with legendary hardship in the 1960's on
the cold, marshy
more water than oil, output is declining and production costs are
noncompetitive. In 1998, in a national restructuring of oil industries,
they became a subsidiary of the PetroChina Company, which is listed on
stock exchanges in
Officials of PetroChina, the Daqing Oilfield Bureau and the governments of
The party-run union at the oil fields denied responsibility for the
welfare of the protesters. "These people have terminated their contracts
in return for a lump sum," said an official who did not give his name.
"They are no longer employees of the oil field and they are no longer
members of the trade union."
Riot police have been deployed in Daqing but have so far shown restraint.
The Chinese press has not been allowed to cover the disputes. The
shrinking oil industry is seething with conflict elsewhere as well. Just
this month, disputes over severance terms led to large protests at the
Huabei field in
a labor official said.
Thousands of labor demonstrations or strikes, usually short-lived, are
reported through internal Government channels each year. Reports seeping
through the censorship in recent weeks suggest how common and seemingly
intractable such conflicts have become.
Last week, as the Daqing protests continued, a more disruptive action
began in a coal
mining region in
the town of
blocked highways and railroad tracks, according to local residents.
Textile workers are striking in the western
that state owners are selling off their factory's assets rather than
trying to save it, Mr. Han said. He acknowledges that state industries
must reduce their work forces but said the hostility and misunderstanding
reflect the inability of Chinese workers to organize and bargain.
Ms. Liu, the former employee, said: "In the past, Daqing oil workers were
docile types who obeyed the leaders. Now we feel differently."
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