Every year in China, tens of thousands of students and graduates are recruited as “village officials” (村官), under a Communist Party-run work experience program in the countryside. Often they help the local Party committee with clerical work. The villagers are supposed to benefit from the graduates’ theoretical knowledge and training, and the graduates from day-to-day contact with rural people and the practical experience of government administration. It is a paid position, with public-sector employee welfare benefits.
Except that, as program participant Li Yongqiang discovered, the welfare benefits sometimes fail to materialise. In September 2007, after graduating from university the previous year, Li accepted a three-year position as a village official in Yufeng township, in Sichuan. After he completed his contract on 25 September 2010, he decided not to apply for renewal. And once out of the system, Li was able to confirm a nasty suspicion that the local authorities had failed to pass on the social security payments made on his behalf by the central government. All of these state pension, medical and unemployment insurance contributions were sitting in the Yufeng township coffers, along with his personal contributions that had been deducted at source from his monthly salary. Li was told there was nothing he could do about it.
In response, Li went public with his problem in his blog, and soon afterwards he talked to CLB Director Han Dongfang about his case.
Li explained that the contract he signed in 2007 was with the Personnel Bureau of Anju district, in which Yufeng was located. The contract contained clear provisions on salary levels, job responsibilities – and social security contributions. “It stated that they have to contribute on our behalf state pension and medical insurance payments under the regulations, and, what is more, it stated the procedures to follow in case of a dispute.”
He first suspected that something was amiss “fairly early on,” as problems of “delay” in the payment of state pension contributions were well-known among other graduates on the program in the area. He realized he too might have a shortfall, but did not try to find out by how much:
At the time, because we were actually working, we did not pay it much attention. We felt we did not need to do anything until we quit. On the day I left I was still hoping for the best.
Asked by Han why he didn’t go earlier to the Social Security Bureau to check, Li replied that it would have been “pointless” while he was still at his unit. Pressed, he admitted that he was also “afraid of creating a fuss” and upsetting his employers.
When you go to work at the unit, your attendance and other things are all decided by them, I mean, they say you are ‘under their eaves.’ You are working in their office, you have to watch out.
Li only found out the true extent of the arrears after quitting, when he tried to apply for unemployment benefit, to which he was entitled as an employee of a state organisation. To apply, he needed the full record of payment of pension and medical insurance contributions from his last employer. That was when he found out that, though these payments had come in on time from the central government in Beijing, the local Yufeng government was simply sitting on them. Meanwhile, the 60-day window for processing an unemployment benefit claim had expired.
Li sought to negotiate a settlement with the local authorities but came away empty handed. He found that his employee status (as both a local Personnel Bureau hire inside the local bureaucracy and also as a participant in a central government program) complicated matters. He also suspected that his decision not to renew the contract may also have prejudiced opinion against him — “I was the only graduate in Anju district who did not apply for contract renewal.”
His next step was to apply for labour arbitration, as stipulated in the dispute settlement terms of his employment contract. Having made the necessary preparations to represent himself, he was warned off by the labour authorities, who said that his case was an “administrative” rather than a labour issue. Li filed his case regardless, convinced that the township had violated the Labour Law, only to find that the Anju District Labour Dispute Arbitration Committee was “in the midst of organisational reform” and could or would not take it on. He was, however, assured he had a one-year window in which to get the case accepted.
If arbitration fails, Li would be entitled to file a civil lawsuit but, in order to press his case, he would need to present a copy of his social security records to the court. But the local Social Security Bureau refused to hand his file over. “I have the evidence I need, but they will not let me see it,” he said. Asked by Han whether they were refusing access at their own discretion or based on regulations. Li replied, “I don’t know, they just said they could not hand over the records.”
I mean, with regard to the law — at least as far as I’m concerned, speaking as a layman — this whole civil rights thing is very difficult. I recognise now that that filing civil lawsuit is a remote prospect, and so for the moment I have not given much thought to getting hold of those records… I do want to sort this out through labour arbitration, I think that is more reasonable.
“One of the reasons why I went public with this was that it’s not just about me personally,” Li said. ‘I want everybody to look more closely at whole issue of social security for graduate (employees).” He said his online posting had drawn only a limited response from other graduate village officials “because they are, after all, out there working in those villages”— in other words, they had the same reservations about upsetting their local employers as he had during his stint in the job.
Nonetheless, there have been successes. In the nearby locality of Shanjia, Li said, graduate village officials faced with the same problem had won a settlement, by coming together in organized protest without suffering retaliation. Asked by Han what was stopping Anju’s graduate village officials from doing the same, Li said collective action was “risky … personal interests are at stake,” and that in Shanjia there had been some public sympathy for the graduates.
Han pointed out the contrasting example of the workers at Nanhai Honda in Foshan who went on strike in the summer of 2010 and, after initial management resistance, eventually won a 50 percent pay rise:
Now, compared with you university graduates, factory workers are not well educated. You graduates have probably read a lot of books, but they were united, they were able to change their position of weakness into a position of strength. And you can certainly do the same.
At the time of the interview Li had been unemployed for more than two months. Without unemployment benefit, he had been living on his paltry savings from working in the village and doing odd jobs.
Han Dongfang's interview with Li Yongqiang was first broadcast in three episodes in December 2010.