Immediately before Chinese New Year in 2015, 103 university students from across China signed on as temporary employees with Huixian Service Dispatch Ltd., a dispatch company located in Suzhou, in eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu.
From there, they were contracted out to a manufacturing plant owned by Huaguan Communications Ltd. The majority of these students came from poorer backgrounds and were giving up their winter break in the hopes of earning enough money to cover their living expenses while at school.
The students worked at the factory from the middle of January until early March. But according to company regulations, they would not receive their February salaries until March 15, after they had already returned to school for the spring semester.
Upon completing their contracts they received assurances from the head of the contracting company that their salaries would be disbursed on time. But the 15th came and went, and no wages were delivered.
A spokesperson for the student, Wang Hongcheng, paid me and my colleagues a visit at the Beijing Practitioner Cultural Development and Research Center for Migrant Workers.
One of the primary goals of our organization is to protect the rights of migrant workers. After listening to Wang’s case we offered to help them.
The next day, we went together to the labor dispute mediation center at the Suzhou Bureau of Human Resources and Social Security. But the officials dismissed us almost immediately, telling us: “You’re students! Students aren’t workers, so legally speaking this is out of our jurisdiction.” They were about to kick us out when we produced the labor contract the students had all signed.
After conferring with his superiors, the official agreed to call the contracting company. But when we finally got through, the company’s CEO told us he was in Shanghai and could only send his corporate cashier to meet with us.
But it quickly became apparent on meeting the cashier that the hours she had recorded in her books were far fewer than the payroll sheets the student employees had brought with them.
When she saw we had brought our own records she grew agitated and asked where the forms had come from. Even after the students explained that they had received them after they had finished their contracts, but the woman refused to acknowledge their authenticity.
It was getting late and the labor dispute center had to close. We decided to forgo the contracting company and head directly to the factory’s personnel office to try and get additional documentation proving the paystubs’ legitimacy.
When we got there we explained the situation and were told to wait in the lobby. We watched as a white car appeared in front of the building. Out of it stepped the CEO of the contracting company — the same person who had told us earlier that he was in Shanghai.
He proceeded to scold us, telling us we had no right to bother the factory with our complaints. But he agreed to hear us out. We made plans to meet the next day.
That day we learned an important lesson: What men like the CEO feared the most wasn’t legal intervention, but threats to their business relationships.
The next day we decided to create banners and placards to stage a protest at the factory’s office in case the CEO refused to meet our demands. We managed to get in touch with a well-known journalist from the 21st Century Business Herald and convinced him to come and report on our actions.
The CEO eventually showed up and we began negotiating. He insisted on deducting the recruitment fees the university campuses had charged them, and refused to give the students the bonuses they had earned while working. This was unacceptable to us.
After hours of negotiations we decided to throw in the towel. We told the CEO that we would meet the next day and he left contented, but in secret, we prepared our protest.
It wasn’t long before we were picketing outside the factory. A young woman in middle management exited the building and asked us what we wanted.
Once again, the contracting company’s CEO suddenly materialized — this time looking a little more agitated. By now we had already attracted a number of passersby who were taking photos of our protest.
We were herded into a conference room and talks began in earnest. The woman from the factory was unwilling to accept any responsibility or make any commitments, but as Huixian’s corporate superior, they pressured the CEO to account for his actions. He had no choice but to give ground to end the talks as quickly as possible.
When we requested that the students be paid in full according to their payroll documentation, the CEO asked where the documentation had come from, apparently unwilling to believe the students could have gotten their hands on their own paystubs. The only party besides Huixian who could verify their authenticity was the personnel office of the factory.
The office acknowledged the veracity of the forms. The CEO finally relented, agreeing not to charge the students for the recruitment fees, and we all came to a compromise on the bonuses, accepting 50 percent of the original amounts.
Finally, the students were able to receive their February salaries, but when the time came in April to pay for their March wages, the CEO again reneged, refusing to refund the recruitment fees, and subtracting several hundred yuan from each worker.
China has many holes in its labor laws. Students are not afforded the same legal rights as workers, and local government agencies can refuse to investigate cases involving them on this basis.
Contractors are able to violate worker rights on a day-to-day basis. However, these oversights in the law benefit the manufacturing industries and capital gains are considered more important than student grievances. As a result, while society has long been aware of their negative effects, they have not yet been made illegal.
The amount of money government officials help employees recover in a year counts towards their yearly achievements. This creates a vicious cycle where officials are incentivized to recovering money after the fact rather than preventing the abuses in the first place.
China must provide student workers the same rights that they give all workers. It must also clean up the contracting industry rather than continuing to ineffectually patch over the flaws in the system.
With contributions from Zhang Lisheng.
(A Chinese version of this article first appeared on Chinese Workers.)
(Header image: Students working as temporary employees check a salary list at the entrance to a factory in Zhongshan, Guangdong province, Aug. 21, 2012. Wu Jin/VCG/ Nanfang Metropolis Daily)