As China’s economic boom has waned, the longstanding problem of non-payment, delayed payment, or partial payment of wages has intensified. The resulting labor disputes increase social instability, demands on government, and pressures on judicial authorities. A recent dispute concerning back pay to rural miners offers a cautionary lesson that can inform the responses of Chinese authorities to this challenge.
Iron Miners in Hebei Protest, Demand Backpay
In October 2012, labor contractors Chen Shouyan and Wei Luntian arranged for more than 100 rural laborers from Lan’gao County, Shaanxi Province, to travel over 2,000 km to work in an iron mine run by Jiangcheng Mining Company in Qinglong County, Hebei Province. By June 2013, however, the mining company had reportedly stopped paying the workers, an apparent violation of their labor contracts.
Chen and Wei were forced to borrow money just to pay workers a basic monthly living wage, approximately 1,000 yuan ($150 USD). In May 2015, money ran out entirely, and angry miners attacked Chen and Wei, trashing their office.
On June 28, 2015, Chen and Wei led more than 180 miners, many from Lan'gao County, to deliver a petition outside the Qinglong County government offices. County officials met with representatives of the miners and the mining company and calculated that the workers were owed nearly 15 million yuan ($2.3 million USD) in back wages. The mining company responded that the miners had not been paid because they failed to deliver according to the contract. Discussions ended in stalemate.
On July 3, 2015, Chen and Wei again led more than 100 miners to demonstrate outside Qinglong County government offices and demand that the county head step in to resolve the wage dispute. Police dispatched to the scene reportedly used tear gas and detained approximately 20 protesters. Of these, Chen, Wei, and four others were placed under criminal detention for gathering a crowd to disrupt social order.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, prosecutors tried the six defendants in two separate trials. In January 2016, Chen and another defendant were sentenced by the Qinglong County People’s Court to four years and 3-1/2 years in prison, respectively, while two other defendants received suspended sentences. Three of the four defendants appealed, resulting in a trial of second instance in May 2016. At it happened, the trial of Wei and a co-defendant was also getting underway at this time.
Tensions Arise Between County Officials in Hebei and Shaanxi
Meanwhile, officials back in Lan’gao County had become aware of the dispute, believed that the miners’ claims were reasonable, and formed a special work team of county officials to look into the case. As a poor county located in a region that “exports” more than a third of its labor force, officials in Lan’gao were familiar with receiving petitions about wage arrears and other labor disputes. Led by Nie Bin, an official from the judicial administration bureau, the team traveled to Qinglong County five times in attempts to sit down with Qinglong officials to discuss the case. Each time, however, their mission was rebuffed.
Finally, the Lan’gao work team returned to Qinglong in May to observe the two trials. They brought four witnesses whose testimony had been used by the prosecution in Chen’s trial, despite the fact that their testimony had been given under the watchful eye of a Jiangcheng Mining official. Two of the witnesses appeared at Wei’s trial to recant their testimony. They were then taken into custody and charged with making false statements, preventing them from appearing in court to recant a second time in Chen’s appeal. This act compounded the tension between officials from the two counties, escalating the dispute.
Details of the case were first reported in the Chinese media in early June, around the time that the appeals court vacated the verdict against Chen and the others and remanded the case for retrial. Media attention and public outcry over the handling of the case pushed the Lan’gao and Qinglong officials to work towards paying the miners years of delinquent back wages.
Prospects for these miners, however, remain unclear. Construction booms used to mean high demand for steel and heavy investment in the iron mines of Qinglong County. Now many of these mines are shuttered and a large number of companies have been unable to pay miners their wages.
Perhaps in recognition that similar disputes will likely proliferate, Beijing Times columnist “Binglin” recently warned local government officials against too hastily resorting to criminal measures in dealing with protesting workers.
“Use Caution with Criminal Measures against Wage Arrears Protests” (translated excerpt)
Beijing Times, June 16, 2016
Rule by law is an important path for modern governance, but rule by law is not the same as criminal justice, and its methods do not entail the indiscriminate use of criminal measures. Local governments must realize that it is difficult to avoid some radical behavior on the part of rural laborers who are owed many years of back wages. The reasonable way to deal with them is to carry out proactive communication and negotiation in accordance with the law and come to some kind of agreement. If protesting workers engage in unlawful behavior, this must be dealt with appropriately within the scope of rule by law. But you cannot simply treat the situation as a criminal matter and be so cavalier about using the “means of last resort” to handle things.
When rural laborers seeking payment of back wages make petitions outside government offices, it is quite possible that they might block the entrance to those offices, tie up traffic, or have a negative effect on work. For those who violate the law, it may thus be necessary to use appropriate coercive measures or punishments in accordance with the law. However, before deciding that this sort of unlawful behavior constitutes the criminal offense of “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order,” you must first consider the criminal law principle of proportionality and make a careful judgment. In applying the law, you must pay particular attention to the distinction between criminal behavior and violations of public order management, giving consideration to the subjective intent of the person who has committed the unlawful act. If the circumstances are not grave and no serious damage has been done, the act should be treated as a public-order offense and be punished accordingly.
Please click here to read the full article in Mandarin.