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New workers' rights thwarted in China

December 27, 2007|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

SHENZHEN, CHINA — Huang Qingnan had just reached a tiny fast-food stand in a run-down neighborhood here when all of a sudden, two men dressed in dark clothing appeared out of nowhere. They unsheathed watermelon-cutting knives concealed in newspapers and began slashing Huang's legs and back with the 16-inch blades.

The 34-year-old labor activist shrieked in pain. Witnesses said he turned and lunged toward one attacker, then collapsed.

"Catch them, catch them!" onlookers shouted as the two strangers fled, scurrying off to the end of the block, where they were met by a motorcyclist who spirited them away late one afternoon last month.

Huang, interviewed at a hospital here where he was recovering, said he believed the attack was motivated by his work to publicize China's new labor contract law.

Starting Jan. 1, workers nationwide will gain new rights, especially when it comes to long-term job security.

Employees with 10 straight years at a company will be entitled to a contract without a fixed end date, essentially giving them lifetime employment. Severance payments will be mandatory for anyone whose contract expires or who leaves after giving 30 days' notice or is laid off, except in special cases of large-scale layoffs or dismissals due to criminal liabilities or serious violations of company rules.

Here in this southeastern industrial city near Hong Kong, people such as Huang have been reaching out to migrant workers and educating them about their protections under the new law. Although lacking proof, Huang and other labor advocates believe some employers are trying to shut them up.

"The government is not promoting this law, so we need to," said Li Jinxin, an assistant with a Shenzhen labor law firm who last month was pushed into a van and taken to a remote street where men clubbed him with iron pipes. Sitting in his apartment here last week, his cast-encased leg resting on a red stool, the 29-year-old Li said employers "wish we did not exist."

Local police and government labor officials declined to comment on the beatings.

Analysts say China's overhaul of employment rules -- adopted in June after months of hearing opinions from interest groups -- was needed in the face of China's rampant industrial development on the backs of largely unprotected laborers. Stories abound of workers toiling in inhumane conditions, being summarily fired and struggling for years trying to collect unpaid wages from unscrupulous employers.

"This law is beneficial to the job stability for migrant workers," said Wang Chunguang, a deputy director in the sociology department at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. And that, he said, would help narrow the economic and social gap between China's poor and the rich, its countryside and cities.

"For the entire society's development, this large mobile population should be stabilized, and the premise of that is stable employment," he said.

But many employers, including foreign multinational corporations, regard the law as too restrictive, according to consultants and business groups. Some have warned that it would add hefty costs and could hurt China's competitiveness.

Most provinces in China already require labor contracts between companies and their staff. But contracts are typically for one or two years. Many factories ignore labor pacts, though now they are scrambling to institute written employment contracts because failure to do so under the new law could subject them to doubling a worker's salary.

Some key details of the law haven't been spelled out yet. For example, it's not clear whether a worker with 10 consecutive years at a company will be entitled on Jan. 1 to an open-ended contract or whether years of employment will be calculated starting from the effective date of the law.

Employers aren't taking any chances, however. Some companies have been firing workers, particularly veteran staff, or pressuring them to sign new contracts, in an apparent effort to circumvent some of the law's key provisions.

At Kaixing Plastic & Metal Factory in Huizhou, a toy manufacturer just north of Shenzhen, workers said 20 long-serving employees were told last week to sign their first labor contract ever -- which stated a pay rate much lower than they were getting.

These workers said they were reassured that their actual salary wouldn't change, but they feared that Kaixing Plastic would shortchange them by making severance payments based on the labor contract. Workers at Kaixing also worried that because they had no previous contracts, they may not be able to prove how long they had worked there.

"We have nothing in hand to protect ourselves," said one employee who gave only his surname, Chen. In the end, he said he had no choice but to sign. "The company told us if we don't, we can choose to terminate our working relations."

Representatives at Kaixing, owned by Hong Kong investors, declined to comment.

Experts say few large companies appear to have resorted to such heavy-handed tactics.

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