Han Dongfang's conversations with workers
In 1998, China Labour Bulletin Executive Director Han Dongfang launched a new kind of radio program. Broadcast three times a week on Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Labour Bulletin (劳工通讯) gave ordinary workers across China the chance to air their long-standing grievances with their employers and local government officials. It also gave Han the opportunity to offer constructive advice and concrete help to the aggrieved workers through China Labour Bulletin's Labour Rights Litigation program.
RFA's Labour Bulletin provides listeners with a unique insight into the lives and struggles of China’s workers. The interviews show that while China’s economy has grown, and life for many workers has improved, fundamental problems in labour relations remain unresolved: Construction worker wage arrears, the lack of compensation for work-related injuries and occupational disease, state-owned enterprise employees being cheated out of their benefits, and long-running labour contract disputes are all regular complaints on the Labour Bulletin.
A constant theme in the program is how employers can routinely act above the law, either by ignoring labour laws and regulations or by using their connections with the local authorities to deny workers their legal entitlements. Many employers went further and used threats and violence to intimidate workers. For example, in August 2008, Han Dongfang talked a group of migrant workers at a kelp processing plant in the coastal city of Rongcheng. They worked 15 hours a day in difficult and hazardous conditions, were denied any time off and abused and exploited by management. At the end of the kelp processing season, the boss hired local gangsters to intimidate and beat up the workers and threatened to kill anyone who refused to accept the reduced wages on offer.
Many workers however refuse to be intimidated. A young factory worker, Pang Shun, who talked to Han in September 2011, in many ways exemplifies the determination of a growing number of younger workers who are no longer willing to accept the exploitation and discrimination their parents endured. After being injured at work and threatened by his boss, Pang stood his ground and demanded the compensation he was legally entitled to. He told Han:
If you defend your rights by going to court, it can take years and the costs are enormous. The bosses can intimidate you, saying they have the money and the time: They know that we are just migrant workers and that we cannot afford [legal action]. Most of us just shut up and put up with it. But I got angry. This is a matter of principle. When I get bullied, I get angry.
As Pang said, many disputes end up in protracted legal battles in which worker plaintiffs have to overcome numerous obstacles created not only by their employer but by local government officials and the courts as well. Work-related injury cases in particular can take years, even decades, to resolve and Han has talked to dozens of injured workers who were denied proper compensation. In one extreme case, a young agricultural worker who lost both her hands in a farm machinery accident in 1975 had to rely on her family for four decades because the local government refused to recognize that her injury was work-related. Miners, construction workers and gemstone factory workers suffering from the deadly lung disease pneumoconiosis were especially vulnerable to exploitation and often endured countless rounds of litigation before getting anything like the compensation they were entitled to.
Disputes caused by the restructuring of state-owned enterprises could be equally complicated and just as frustrating for the workers involved. In September 2008, Han talked to Liu Xiangdong, a former employee at Lingyuan Iron and Steel in Liaoning about the company’s long history of coercion and manipulation, and the workers’ frustrated attempts to seek redress through the petitioning and judicial systems. Lingyuan started laying off employees in 1998 under the slogan “to get laid-off is glorious,” adapted from the phrase attributed to China’s then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping: “to get rich is glorious.” In this case, the company claimed the “glory” would come from the “sacrifice” the laid-off workers made for the greater good of the company. Many of the laid-off workers were later rehired as temporary or contract workers on reduced salaries and benefits.
The underhand tactics of employers, the collusion of local government officials and the inability of the judicial system to deliver justice for workers forced many workers to take extreme measures in their quest for redress. Dozens of worker interviewees had travelled to Beijing to petition the central authorities: Many were beaten and detained in black jails as a result, and one former health worker, whose husband talked to Han in 2010, ended up incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. Also in 2010, Han interviewed a group of electrical power workers from rural Hunan who staged a dramatic self-mutilation protest outside Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University after being continually rebuffed in their quest for justice. The workers had been dismissed by the local county power bureau without proper compensation just a year after they had braved snow and freezing blizzards to get the Hunan’s power back online during one of province’s worst winters on record. Finally, in early 2015, Han talked to two families of labour contractors who had both killed themselves because they were cheated out of the money they needed to pay their workers.
Behind all these stories of employer abuse, worker protest and official indifference has been the inaction or invisibility of the trade union. In many disputes, the trade union was at best passive and at worst deliberately obstructive. A bus company trade union in Guangdong, for example, openly sided with management during a drivers’ strike in 2013, and in 2014, a Shenzhen district union sought to justify the mass firings at a local factory that had led to a worker’s suicide.
In all of Han’s interviews, there was just one example of a trade union official actually taking the lead in defending his members’ interests. In March 2014, Huang Xingguo, the union chairman at the Walmart store in the central city of Changde took on the world’s largest retailer in a protracted battle over the compensation to be paid to employees following the closure of the store. Although, the battle was ultimately unsuccessful, the Changde Walmart workers and their union leader laid the ground work for increased worker activism in Walmart’s Chinese stores the following year.
Han Dongfang continues to broadcast three times a week on RFA. To listen to Han’s interviews, as and when they are broadcast, go to the 劳工通讯 section of RFA’s Mandarin website 自由亚洲电台普通话. The 劳工通讯 archive page lists interviews dating back to 2004, most of which can still be listened to online.
Although CLB no longer summarizes Han’s interviews, we have created a wide variety of new platforms and channels for China’s workers to get their voices heard. CLB's Strike Map records workers’ strikes and protests as they occur across China and our website and various social media platforms feature regular profiles of worker activists and role of the trade union in the reform era.
Workers' Voices summaries (2007-2015)
From 2007 to 2015, CLB produced nearly 100 English-language summaries of Han Dongfang’s most important interviews. These summaries, which include extended quotes from the interviewees, are listed below according to industrial sector. The majority of interviewees worked in manufacturing, heavy industry, mining and construction, with transport workers, teachers and clerical workers also featured regularly.
In addition, RFA has published an illustrated e-book based on the interview summaries entitled Chinese Workers Wronged: An oral history of workers’ struggle during the economic rise of China that contextualizes and analyses the main issues that arise during Han’s discussions.