In 1999, the state run oil and natural gas monopoly China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) was restructured into a joint stock company PetroChina Co Ltd. The following year, PetroChina listed on the New York and Hong Kong stock exchanges.
According to Shanghai Securities News, in the three years from 1999 to 2002, CNPC laid-off more than 360,000 workers. The oil workers were given a severance pay package based on the number of years they had been employed at the company but in many cases workers were coerced or tricked into accepting unreasonably low payments.
In June 2007, Han Dongfang talked to Xiao Yishan, a former oil refinery worker from Xinjiang about her experience of the redundancy process and the attempts she and her colleagues have made to seek redress after being forced to accept severance payments significantly lower than in other oilfields. She described how many workers leaders in Xinjiang had been arrested, while those who pleaded their case in Beijing were beaten and sent back to Xinjiang. She also revealed that many workers in Xinjiang, a region bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, were too scared to protest or demonstrate because they feared being labeled as Muslin separatists.
Xiao worked in an oil refinery in Xinjiang for 17 years from 1984 to 2000. She had been on maternity leave in Beijing since 1998 and was due to return to work in July 2001 but in 2000, her boss called to say “If you don’t come back now, by next year you’ll be laid off and you won’t get a cent. If you come back now and agree to a seniority buyout (maiduan gongling) you will at least get some money.”
Cheated and coerced into giving up their jobs
Xiao was not familiar with the concept of a seniority buyout so she asked her friends and colleagues but they did not understand it either. At that time, many departments in her company were cutting between 45 to 85 percent of their staff. Xiao returned to her workplace in Xinjiang in October 2000, and in November signed a seniority buyout contract for 4,500 yuan per year of employment in which she agreed to sever her employment relationship with the company. She estimated that around 20,000 of her colleagues in Xinjiang had terminated their employment contracts at a similar rate. Xiao later discovered that workers at oilfields in other parts of China had received payouts of 12,000 yuan for each year of employment. “Xinjiang people were really naïve,” she said.
Xiao claimed that the majority of oil workers in Xinjiang who agreed to a seniority buyout were pressured into doing so. “A team leader would pull some workers over and tell them, here, sign this. If you didn’t sign, you’d be laid off anyway, and you won’t get a cent. Even if you sued in court it would be useless.”
Some workers were not aware of what they were signing and turned up for work the next day, assuming they were still employed.
Protestors beaten and arrested
In 2001, nearly 6,000 former employees staged a protest at Xiao’s refinery, but following the demonstration the authorities drew up a hit list and arrested 15 alleged ringleaders. Subsequently, four former oil workers went to Beijing to petition their case. They were unsuccessful and Xiao claimed that two of them committed suicide, one went insane and one vowed never to return to the oilfield in Xinjiang. Undeterred, many former employees continued to press their case. Xiao recalled: “In early 2005, I got a phone call from somebody, asking me, ‘Did you sign a seniority buyout?’ I said I did. The person replied, ‘Aren’t you attending the meeting? People are there, fighting for their rights.’”
The management of CNPC Xinjiang had asked to meet ten workers’ representatives to discuss their grievances but later one of the representatives, Chen Faling, was arrested and imprisoned for 30 days. “The management wanted to kill a monkey to scare the chickens,” Xiao explained.
Chen was eventually released after the workers petitioned the Xinjiang regional government. The management in Xinjiang told the workers that they could not solve their problems, and referred them to the head office in Beijing. When the workers approached the head office they were told to take the matter up with the State Council. Eventually however, Xiao and her fellow workers did get to meet CNPC executives in Beijing. After two hours of negotiations, two police officers entered and ordered Xiao and her four fellow petitioners to leave. Nearly 50 CNPC security personnel then arrived to escort the workers out. As they were leaving Xiao and two colleagues were beaten. They were taken to Beijing’s west railway station and put on a train back to Xinjiang.
While thousands of former oil workers protested at their unfair treatment, her company was expanding and hiring new employees from other provinces, increasing staff from 60,000 to 80,000. None of those workers laid off were rehired, neither did they receive any preferential treatment when applying for new jobs, as they were entitled to under China’s labour laws.
Workers continue to press for justice
In June 2005, a second batch of former oil workers including Xiao went to Beijing to petition their case. In the meeting, Xiao said CNPC management promised that it would pay the school fees and medical expenses of those workers who had been laid-off and provide employment for their children if necessary, however she claimed the company had yet to honour its pledges.
When Xiao and her colleagues agreed to their seniority buyout, they did not really consider how they would live and support themselves in the future. “We never thought things through. We were really simple-minded then.”
“Those workers still employed sympathized with us, but dared not support us. Why didn’t they dare? When we unemployed old women demonstrated in the streets, management told the workers, ‘Whoever has a mother demonstrating, take her home, otherwise you will be laid off too.’”
Although there was a branch of the All China Federation of Trade Unions at her company, Xiao said it was completely ineffectual, never supported the workers and continually groveled to management.
Xiao said at least 4,000 former oil workers were still determined to seek adequate compensation from the company, but she added that she was now urging them to petition privately because if they staged a public demonstration the police would be present and the authorities might accuse them of being Muslim separatists, a charge that could lead to significantly longer prison terms than simple disorder charges. In such a tense atmosphere, Xiao said few were willing to speak out on the workers’ behalf. She said the workers had considered hiring a lawyer, but no one was prepared or had the courage to represent them and no court was willing to hear their case.
Last year, Xiao was diagnosed with cancer. At the time of the interview, Xiao’s child was nine years old and attending school. She and her husband rented an apartment in Beijing for 180 yuan a month and their only income was the 400 yuan a month minimum retirement benefit paid by CNPC. The company said it was willing to give her some money, but not hire her back.
Han Dongfang’s interview with Xiao Yishan was originally broadcast in eight episodes from June to July 2007. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go the workers’ voices
section of our Chinese language website and follow the links.