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Translation by Wv of《中国铁路工人的状况和斗争》(The conditions and struggles of China’s railway workers), written by Mayday (伍壹) for the Railroad Workers Bulletin (铁路工人通讯) in early 2016. Scroll down for the original Chinese version. Also see our translations of other selections from the Bulletin: “Prologue,” “Tales of Rights Defense,” “Farewell, Director!“ “Guiyang’s Casualized Train Attendants Fight Back,” “Why Workers Are Dissatisfied,” “Song of the Locomotive Engineer” and “Not Your Daddy’s Railroad.”
Recent expansion of China’s railway system
Over the past thirty years, China’s road traffic and airfreight has developed rapidly. The sales volume of motor vehicles in this past decade has been even more startling. China has not followed the path of the United States, however, as the government eventually chose to slow down reforms and began supporting large-scale development of the railway system. Its efforts were quite successful, achieving electrification and an operating distance upwards of 110,000 kilometers, a figure rivaled only by the United States. China also owns the world’s largest high-speed rail lines and network, which it is aggressively promoting to other countries. After the sudden onset of the 2008 economic crisis, railway infrastructure has been one of the main targets of China’s four trillion yuan of state investment (including two trillion yuan in the 11th Five-Year Plan), continuing to the present day. Compared to the United States, rail transport features more prominently in China’s economic development and the everyday lives of its people. Due to China’s large population of 1.3 billion, however, the amount of railway per capita is very low. Railway development has increased the job security of [railway] workers, despite an overall decline in wages.
Following other state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the railway system has moved towards marketisation and privatisation since the 1980s. In 2012, the Ministry of Railways was dissolved and the China Railway Corporation was established in preparation for marketisation. Starting in the 1980s, the Ministry put forward a variety of specific proposals based on its study of the railway reform models adopted by various countries, including “big contracting” (complete transformation into [a set of state-owned and/or private] enterprises, with 5% of operating revenue paid to the government annually, each bureau managed autonomously), and “the separation of train operation from railway infrastructure” (网运分离). The government, on the other hand, adopted a more cautious attitude. In the 1980s, the pace of railway development constantly lagged behind other sectors and failed to keep up with population explosion, causing severe capacity shortage, deterioration, and overloading. More than ten major accidents resulted. The government also considered the railway’s impact on the national economy and national security, as the previous contractual system and reforms – such as each [railway] bureau’s establishment of passenger train operating companies – created serious internal conflicts of interest and significant financial loss. Complete marketisation would also weaken the government’s ability to regulate and manage, with sectional interests harming the collective interests of capital accumulation. The most obvious example is the transportation of passengers during the annual Spring Festival (Lunar New Year), where operators must defer a portion of freight traffic and carry passengers on a non-profit or low-profit basis. Fares that have been kept unchanged for twenty years would inevitably rise after privatisation or marketisation.
Railway reforms and workforce [re]composition
Although the [bulk of China’s] railway system remains state-owned (supplemented by local railways and a small number of private railways) and did not become completely marketised, changes to its organisational structure, management and employment regime have been similar to those in other SOEs, and are thus essentially capitalistic. The success of the system’s large-scale development brought with it the “aristocratisation of [management] cadres alongside the enslavement of workers” that is typical of the establishment of [China’s] modern enterprise system. Frontline workers face ever-increasing workloads disproportional to received benefits. The number of contract, temporary and subcontracted workers has also increased.
The enterprises, institutions and personnel that China Railway covers are quite large and complex. The restructuring known as “separation between main and supplementary [institutions, enterprises and personnel]” (主辅分离), which began in the late 1990s, transferred the management of railway materials, communications, design and construction to the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission and its subsidiaries. (For example, construction is carried out by the China Railway Engineering Corporation and the China Railway Construction Corporation, while locomotive manufacturing is undertaken by China South Railway and China CNR Corporation. These are all independent, listed companies.) Labour welfare organisations and service facilities, such as schools and hospitals, were carved out and separated from the core business. The Railway Transportation Court and the Railway Transport Procuratorate, founded in 1982, had their jurisdiction moved to local civilian courts. Currently, railway employees number at 2.2 million (versus 3.2 million in the mid-1980s), or more than 10 million if family members are included.
Many employees, often family members of former railway workers, were assigned to “collective” enterprises or “diversified” companies owned by the railway since the 1980s. Many do the same work as formal employees, but with lower pay and poor job security. Under the current plan, reform of the large collective railway enterprises will be completed next year . A large number of workers are facing layoffs or xiagang [usually-permanent on-leave status with a small stipend].
From 25 to 27 January 2016, more than 2,000 Harbin Railway Bureau collective enterprise workers rallied and raised banners in front of the bureau, protesting 8 years of unpaid pension contributions, which meant that they had each received a over a thousand yuan less than other workers each month. They also demanded full payment of wage and subsidy arrears. But when they rallied again on 1 February, the group was tightly controlled and suppressed. Apart from this, collective workers from the Shanghai and Wuhan Railway Bureaus have also waged resistance for many years.
As for the employment regime, since the 1980s, many children of employees and workers recruited from the labour market [as opposed to those with personal connections] are increasingly employed as contract workers with basically no hope of becoming regular staff. In 2008, the Labour Contract Law was introduced. Dispatch [i.e. temp agency] labour became prevalent as many contract workers were turned into dispatch workers. After Labour Contract Law amendments at the end of 2012 and the Dispatch Interim Provisions in 2014 were introduced, many dispatch workers were cleared out or became subcontracted workers with lowered job security. On 9 December 2015, 40 dispatch workers employed in passenger dining cars visited the China Railway Corporation headquarters in Beijing to petition for equal pay for equal work.
During the reforms of the 1980s, the Ministry of Railways, like other SOEs, actively subcontracted work to generate more revenue. But because of government-imposed fare limits, employee incomes shrank and the problem of petty corruption (路风不正) became widespread. Railway staff privately let in passengers, which increased the rate of accidents. Upper management seized this as an opportunity to push for aggressive restructuring, ultimately turning employees into slaves. From 1996 onward, the Ministry of Railways encouraged bureaus to increase penalties, holding a portion of wages (between a few hundreds to a few thousands) as ransom and enacting increasingly baroque regulations used to assess and deduct the pay of errant workers.
The management of every bureau and section took this up with great enthusiasm. Firstly, this offered a means to control, divide and repress employees, as well as to blame frontline workers for [problems related to] safety. Secondly, they could raise their own bonuses by punishing workers with wage deductions.
Over the past few years, railway bureaus respectively set up surveillance cameras in driver cabins to monitor drivers and required drivers to use voice recorder pens, provoking great antipathy. Although major safety accidents were reduced, frontline workers shouldered great stress and even felt heavily tormented, despite the fact that punitive deductions did not necessarily constitute a great portion of their pay.
The 2005 merger reform of railway bureaus and station departments brought the total number of station sections down from 1,491 to 627. A large number of workers were xiagang [put on permanent leave status], and many remaining were forced to commute to workplaces far away from home.
As in other state-owned enterprises, institutions and administrative bodies, besides xiagang of a portion of the old workforce, reforms to the employment regime primarily took an “old staff old way, new staff new way” approach. While much of the remaining old staff kept their permanent employment status (固定编制), market-based employment standards were applied to new staff. The latter signed short-term contracts, eventually becoming dispatch workers and finally subcontracted workers.
Permanent employment became a “privilege” that became difficult to obtain, increasingly awarded only to a privileged class of people (via personal connections or backdoor deals). Officials used their authority to install relatives and friends or sell positions to enrich themselves, producing a large number of “loafers” (吃闲饭).
Status and conditions of workers
Prior to the 1980s, the social status and income of railway workers were relatively high. Local and nationally chosen “model workers” often included railway employees. The income of a railway worker could feed a small family – something that has become increasingly difficult. Most workers had a strong sense of honour, pride, and responsibility. “Contradictions between cadres and the masses” were not as acute then as nowadays. As such, the railway was widely considered a good place to work. Moreover, because the state limited the quota of railway workers and the channels to employment were few, many old workers took early retirement or even let work injuries go unreported in order to seek jobs for their children. In the 1980s, the government implemented “single-man leadership” to strengthen the power and position of managers. Discontent against workplace, work and management grew by the day, and work attitudes became more passive. The old method of “ideological work” (思想政治工作) no longer had an effect and many workers preferred paying fines to participating in the “political education” organised by their workplaces. The rulers (统治者) were no longer able to control and demand workers to prioritise work over family. Since the 1990s, SOEs [in general] have declined [in status and conditions], so they have become less attractive places of employment. Many people sought work elsewhere or set up their own businesses. Those that remained endured wave after wave of “reducing the quantity [of workers] while raising the quality [of work]” and massive xiagang.
The early 2000s witnessed an unexpected increase of economic prosperity, in which many SOEs revived, some event developing into “behemoths” (巨无霸). Worker remuneration rose and employment [in some SOEs] was once again regarded as a “high-income” and secure “iron rice bowl.” However, this often resulted in a massive increase of “loafers” with bought positions, while frontline workers had to face worsening manpower shortages and hardships. Only university graduates could work as formal employees, while lower paid dispatch workers filled the remaining positions. Overstaffing coexisted with manpower shortages. For employees without personal connections, having their children attend vocational schools or join the military were important avenues to obtaining employment at the railway. Today these avenues have been closed off. Because of this, workers from eighteen bureaus have respectively initiated [labor dispute] actions, achieving partial success.
However, compared to many other large-scale SOEs, the treatment of railway workers has been relatively poor. When Liu Zhijun (刘志军) was head of Ministry of Railways, he liked to say “to achieve a great leap, a generation must be sacrificed.” A great many employees were plunged into difficulties, prompting the new minister to issue a document titled “The Three Don’ts”: “Don’t let a single employee’s family fall below the poverty line; don’t let a single employee’s child be unable to attend school; don’t let a single worker be unable to seek medical help.” To sooth sentiments, wages were also raised.
While officials blamed the 23 July 2011 Wenzhou train collision on design flaws in the signal systems, the head of the technical investigation team testified that the accident was the result of poor management and the deterioration of working conditions:
It clearly is a management problem… entirely an issue of training, of not employing students from vocational and technical schools but from university. Important posts were cut by reckless streamlining. Trains don’t even have co-drivers, so drivers have no time to relieve themselves. A serious accident can happen when a driver grows weary. There are no backups for on-duty personnel who need them. Fuses in the signal equipment burned out by lightning went undetected, but no one dared to stop the trains, despite failing to locate the problem. These issues have now been corrected.
The work of frontline workers has always been backbreaking. Work at the locomotive section is especially tough, with occupational hazards abounding. The overworking of drivers has been such a problem for decades that complaints of being overworked are dismissed by retired drivers as just part of the job. They have long accustomed themselves to being overworked. What’s more, a considerable number of drivers, especially those from rural or poor family backgrounds, hope that the extra hours they put in can earn them overtime pay.
On the other hand, compared to ordinary workers (especially in economically less-developed regions), railway workers, even dispatch ones, enjoy better remuneration, welfare and security. Citing the Urumqi Railway Bureau as example: “the income of a dispatch worker at the Maintenance and Repair Section is between 3,500 and 4,000 yuan, a regular worker earns between 7,500 and 8,000,” “dispatch workers can complete their social insurance payments in a single month (一个月交完社保) at only 3,500 yuan, for which they are even grateful to the Communist Party.” The firing of formal employees is extremely rare (the more serious punishment is suspension) as it has to go through multiple procedures, and the compensation paid out is high. Dispatch workers, in contrast, are easily scapegoated and dismissed.
Train driver pay varies by area, ranging from about 5,000 to over 10,000 yuan per month. The latter amount is awarded for very tough areas like Xinjiang and Qinghai-Tibet, or for high volumes of overtime work. Wages of 5,000 or more yuan were relatively high in Chinese cities some years back, but an ordinary electronics factory worker outside of Shenzhen’s Special Economic Zone (关外) can now earn four or five thousand yuan per month in a good season. Construction workers also enjoyed a large wage increase during the period of intensive infrastructure construction. Compared to them, railway worker pay is not particularly high.
Last year (2015), the economic depression (萧条) led to a dramatic drop in bulk cargo shipments, causing many railway bureaus to post losses. As a result, wage increases promised to workers were cut back once again, while punitive wage deductions continued to increase. However, this did not spur strong and widespread resistance, highlighting the low spirits of workers at the time. Those who are more proactive often feel helpless against the passivity of their peers. There was just one notable incident on November 2015 when more than 70 workers at the Beijing Railway Bureau protested deductions ranging from 500 to 1500 yuan that had been ongoing for many months, chanting “dear chief, return our wages,” ultimately managing to win back 500 yuan of wages for each month.
Large SOEs are publicly demonised as monopolies, with their workers seen as “labour aristocrats.” It is difficult for SOE workers, especially formal employees, to obtain sympathy from the public or other workers. A certain labour NGO in southern China that organises workers and documents labour news has met workers who say, “Strikes by railway workers should not be included [in their archive of labour struggles]” because “their wages are already so high, yet they’re still not content.” There is even less public support and sympathy for SOE workers who fight to obtain employment for their children. Still, this has yet to pose obstacles to the struggle. After all, workers of various regions and industries have always struggled alone. They rely on themselves first and foremost – as they should.
At the moment, Chinese workers in general are depoliticised, and railway workers are no exception. Workers with any degree of militancy are often manipulated by mainstream oppositional ideology into fantasizing about utilising privatisation and more thorough marketisation to win more job choices and bargaining power for workers by eliminating “idle parasites” and corrupt, domineering bureaucrats. There are also some who look back nostalgically on the days of Mao, but these often fantasize about becoming rulers themselves. On the whole, regardless of political leaning or the lack thereof, workers remain somewhat politically naive and lacking in judgment.
Many workers wish labour unions would stand up for them, but do not take the initiative to build their own unions or some other form of self-organisation. Workers from various places have attempted to organise unions or mutual-aid groups, but their efforts have been quickly suppressed. Official labour unions have generally been sidelined and sometimes act as accomplices to management crackdowns on resisting workers.
The case of train driver Li Weijie’s struggle
In April 2012, Li Weijie (李伟杰), an electric train driver with the Luoyang Locomotive Section of the Zhengzhou Railway Bureau, fell and hurt himself at work. Management refused to recognise the injury as work-related, transferred him out and imposed a large wage cut. In the process of the legal fight for his rights (依法维权), Old Li embarked on a series of labour dispute arbitrations and litigations after learning that many other employees had also encountered similar problems, finally launching a solo battle for the rights of all drivers – and of railway workers in general. For these efforts, Li was heavily persecuted.
His case resonated with many railway workers at every bureau, especially train drivers, who got in touch via QQ Groups. Many of the demands in his petition to the court were drafted based on his discussions with other drivers. The main points were:
- The time from illegally imposed driver rest periods used for productivity training, examinations and waiting for trains should be considered overtime.
- Work in excess of the legal monthly limit of 166.6 hours should be paid overtime.
- The wage rates (工资基数) used in paid leave and overtime calculations are illegal.
- The private introduction of assessment items and associated punitive deductions of employee pay by various units are illegal.
- The failure to pay doubled wages for workers who worked on holidays but did not take compensatory on-leave days [should be addressed].
These problems are common and widespread. Worrying that a disturbance may break out among workers, the Zhengzhou Railway Bureau established a small taskforce to tackle the issue. They isolated Li, toughened the control over employees to ensure that no one could testify in court. As part of this, agents were stationed outside the courthouse to intercept any employees who might appear. During the hearing, the court ignored the evidence Li submitted and did not subpoena the bureau for important documents, rejecting every claim other than Li’s work injury. Even that was downgraded in order to lower his compensation. In response, Li began another litigation. At the same time, in order to assuage employees, the Zhengzhou Bureau leadership announced that a sum of 100 million yuan would be paid out to locomotive crews as overtime pay. Apart from this, many bureaus also improved the remuneration of locomotive crews.
In the process of litigation, Li discovered that the signature for renewing his employment contract was not his, so he filed another legal case, demanding that the bureau double his pay in accordance with the law. However, he lost each and every case. The “rule of law” the Chinese government is currently promoting aggressively is, in Li’s view, beneficial to the common people but difficult to get anything out of.[…]
In 2011, Wang Zhen (王振), a senior driver from the Harbin Railway Bureau, filed a similar lawsuit, experiencing much adversity before ultimately losing. Strategically speaking, what needs to be pointed out is that it is difficult for litigations by individual workers for the collective benefit of every worker to achieve serious and enduring results, so these individuals may be paying a high price needlessly. Collective gains ultimately require collective action in order to win. Laws pertaining to workers’ rights and interests are not useless, but collective action needs to be applied for maximum effect. From the various existing cases of collective struggles by railway workers [such as the 2015 struggle of Beijing Bureau workers mentioned above], we can see that while their leaders also invested much effort on the legal front, they achieved a stronger position in their interactions with management and did not have to face the sophistry of lawyers backed by the courts, nor the problem of “insufficient evidence.” [More of these collective struggles will be addressed in a forthcoming article.]