The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Laid-off workers take to the streets

Apr 1, 2002

In China’s industrial northeast, tens of thousands of workers have taken to the streets for several weeks. The demonstrations were organized by laid-off workers, protesting unpaid wages or pensions, low severance pay as well as corruption among the bosses and the country’s rulers.

In the city of Daqing, an estimated 50,000 workers participated in the protests, occupying a building owned by China’s largest oil company, PetroChina, for weeks and clashing with the police. In this center of China’s oil industry, as many as 86,000 oil workers out of 260,000 have been laid off within the past three years. Many of the workers were tricked into accepting a one-time, lump-sum settlement in return for giving up job guarantees. But these workers quickly found that their bills skyrocketed because they lost subsidies for housing and health care. Most of them also have not been able to find work since privatization has been dumping millions of workers out into the street.

In Liaoyang, another center of mining and industry in northeast China, at least 30,000 laid-off workers from as many as 20 factories have been involved in month-long protests. The workers there were especially angered by the statement of a local political boss that there were no unemployed in the city, when 80% of the workers in the city were out of work. So the workers added the resignation of this politician to their demands and occupied the city’s government headquarters.

Several other workers’ protests were reported in recent weeks from different parts of China, where the government imposes a strict censorship on the reporting of such actions. Nonetheless, over the last few years, more and more such stories have been leaking out. The government itself reported that there were 60,000 protests in China in 1998.

Conditions for Chinese workers have been getting worse and worse as the government carries out a “restructuring” of state-owned enterprises. In the name of “reforming the economy,” the government has been closing down some state-owned factories while handing others over to privately owned companies. The company that operates Daqing’s oil fields, PetroChina, for example, was listed on the New York and Hong Kong stock exchanges in 2000 and has since been busy “cutting costs.” Last year, BusinessWeek magazine said that PetroChina was turning into a “modern profit machine” rivaling international oil companies.

Recently, China was accepted into the World Trade Organization – a sign of international capital’s approval of the direction China is headed: Welcome to the wonderful world of “free trade” and “market economy”!

Profits for a handful of shareholders in New York and Hong Kong, however, means layoffs for millions of Chinese workers. The workers’ anger is fueled by the sight of their managers and China’s new-rich cruising the streets in expensive cars. As one protester in Daqing said: “Those guys up there got rid of us to give themselves annual bonuses equal to our entire life’s earnings.”

The fighting spirit of the Chinese workers forced the government to respond. In Liaoyang, the government paid half of the back pay that it owed to 1400 workers of a major steel factory which was shut down. Another 1500 workers were told that they would start receiving unemployment benefits and pensions. And 13 managers of the factory were formally accused of stealing money from the company. At the same time, six workers, known as organizers, were arrested and charged with leading an illegal protest – leaving no doubt as to what the intention of the government is regarding the workers’ organizing. But the workers may yet have the last word on this question also.