China’s Teachers’ Law went into effect in 1993, giving the country’s school teachers, on paper at least, the same status as civil servants, and a wide range of guarantees designed to protect their income and benefits. Indeed, under the law, those who misappropriate educational funds, interfere with educational work, delay payments of wages to teachers, or damage teachers’ legal rights are to be subject to administrative or, in serious cases, criminal sanctions.
However, as with all laws designed to protect the interests of workers in China, the implementation of the Teachers’ Law has been less than thorough on the ground. The enforcement of the law has been particularly problematic in poor rural counties where a lack of resources, government incompetence or corruption has led to teachers not being paid their dues for years on end.
In December 2006, Liu Yonghui and Li Jinjuan, two retired teachers from Renshou county in Sichuan, talked to CLB Director Han Dongfang about how the authorities have failed to properly implement the Teachers Law in their county over the last 13 years. In some cases, government officials simply ignored the law, in others teachers were asked to sign promissory notes on the understanding payment would be made at the end of the year. However, either no money or only a proportion of the money was forthcoming, and the two retired teachers estimated that in total the teachers of Renshou were owed around 60,000 yuan each.
One of the biggest problems, Liu Yonghui explained, was that teachers, like civil servants, should have received a 86 yuan monthly cost-of-living allowance since 1993. But in Renshou, a document was circulated by the county government stating that the allowance was to be paid by the schools not the local education department. "Those schools that had the money paid the allowance; those that didn't, didn't pay. The local educational departments were confused, because that money had been allocated," Liu said.
County government in dereliction of its duty
Liu claimed the whole idea of schools paying the allowance contravened government regulations, which clearly stated that the money should come from the state and local governments jointly. “The county education department was playing games. They announced there would be loans to schools and the money would be paid starting in June -- but we weren’t going to see any of the money due before that." Not a penny of allowance was paid out for the period from 1993 through June 2006. And at 86 yuan per teacher per month, over a 248 month period, the teachers should each have received 21,368 yuan.
Wage reforms in 1993 would also have given the average teacher in the province a 120 yuan raise, but the education department delayed for a year and a half, finally having all the teachers sign promissory notes. When they did pay out the money, 35 yuan was taken out of each teacher’s monthly share, leaving them with a raise of 85 yuan. The money was included in the state and provincial level budgets and therefore failure to pay should have been considered misappropriation of state funds. Liu estimated that over a period of 18 months, the department skimmed 630 yuan from each teacher's salary, while prior to 1999, another salary deduction cheated teachers out of between 6,000 yuan and 7,000 yuan each.
Another subsidy that never got paid was the 2,000 yuan promised annually from 2005, as a local subsidy to be paid out by the city of Meishan. The subsidy was to be paid to all civil servants, including teachers. Again, nothing was forthcoming. There were other disputed payments that Liu said the teachers no longer bothered with because they did not have the necessary supporting documents. For example, the Yangguang Project, a nationwide plan to issue every teacher a lump sum of money, provided teachers in Chongqing with 350 yuan and those in Shuangliu county with 400 yuan. “It should have been 400 yuan per person here in Renshou but we didn't get a penny."
The teachers did not take these failures to pay sitting down. Over the last 13 years, they’ve held numerous meetings with the education department, but all to no avail. The department didn’t say the teachers should not have received the money; it just said that it had not received any money. “They’re lying,” declared Liu. “They said it’s a case of paying the money if they have it and not giving anything if they don’t. More lies!”
Pointing out to the department that the money was to have come from the state and local government budgets didn't help, neither did meetings with municipal or local officials. “Nothing worked, because we had no ‘weapons’ in our hands, Liu said. But in 2006, “we finally obtained the relevant documents we needed to fight for our rights.”
Few teachers are bold enough to protest
The teachers traveled to the provincial capital Chengdu in an attempt to press their case but could not see anyone and could only leave a petition. Neither have they ever managed to secure a meeting with the mayor of Meishan. In response to having doors closed in their faces, some teachers have resorted to strike action but Liu said very few teachers are willing to take such a risk.
In 2003, teachers salaries across the province had not been paid for two months but only three schools went on strike and the walkouts lasted only two or three days. And even though salaries were paid after the strike Liu said "we never did anything like that again. The newspapers, which supported us then, are too frightened to run that risk today. The papers just aren't willing to get involved in this kind of thing now."
Most teachers do not support strikes because principals will be criticized, and the teachers themselves could be penalized. Many working teachers are afraid to openly complain about non-payment of wages and benefits, so it is retired teachers such as Liu and Li who are leading the fight for teachers’ rights in the province. However, even retired teachers are often afraid to take action. Of the roughly 3,000 teacher-retirees in Sichuan, only 600 signed papers supporting the claims; the others were too frightened to participate. Some had sons or daughters who are teachers; others were worried about children who held other government-related posts and who could be fired as a result of their parents’ actions.
Indeed there have been consequences for some of the 600 who were bold enough to sign. In 2003, three retired teachers were openly criticized and pressurized by the county education department. The three were told not pursue their claims, and the director of the department openly stated that if any teacher sought take their complaint to a higher level that individual's children would be fired.
After letters to the central and provincial governments reporting the threats, the county education department apologized to two of the individuals and there were no more direct threats. But when the education department heard of the teachers’ plan to file a complaint in Beijing, it issued clear instructions to the principals of all schools not to allow any funding for such an undertaking, even though it is the legal right of every Chinese citizen to petition a higher authority in seeking redress for a violation of their rights.
Teachers’ income is barely enough to live on
Li Jinjuan is one of two retired teachers who have been working closely with Liu over the last decade. He retired in 1994 from his job teaching politics and physical education, and lives with his wife and a son, who does not wish to teach or go onto further education.
Li said most teachers working in Renshou County made between 600 yuan and 700 yuan a month, while some might get more than 1,000 yuan. Retirees generally received about 600 yuan a month and while Li himself got 900 yuan a month, he said he still has to be careful with money. “If I work at it, I can get by,” he said. His medical care deductible was up to 400 yuan a year, but would have to pay the lion’s share of anything over that amount.
“My health is not too bad,” says Li, “but Teacher Liu worked so hard and so long on these money issues that he just tired himself out and made himself sick, so after his deductible of 500 yuan, he had to come up with around 20,000 yuan in hospital fees. At times, even costs supposedly covered by insurance are not forthcoming. They do anything they can to delay, and if they can drag things on, they do. With all the noise and thunder, it would be nice is a bit of rain fell now and then!"
Li pointed out that the teachers’ wages in arrears had affected the quality of education in Renshou. “All the really good teachers at the two county middle schools have gone over to Shuangliu to teach, because they earn double or even triple the salary if they do." Neighboring counties poach teachers from Renshou County on a regular basis, with 28 teachers leaving the Number 1 Middle School and 21 jumping ship from the Number 2 Middle School. The situation has become so severe that at times the schools can’t open classes for lack of staff, and have to try to get primary school teachers or supply teachers to come in.
When asked why Meishan city and other neighboring counties were able pay the mandated subsidies and Renshou was not, Li replied, "Well, that's a difficult question. It's essentially because of the county leadership." Although the teachers in Renshou have to some extent learnt from the experiences of colleagues who stood up for their rights in neighboring counties and Meishan city, Li said: “The teachers here in Renshou are still too timid.”
Li pointed out that his colleague Teacher Liu is a rare example of someone who was willing to fight. “What’s he got to be afraid of? His wife’s dead, his father is dead, and his son is grown already. He’s got 700 yuan a month, which is enough for him. But he still works for all the teachers in Renshou county. He does not have to do this work but he still does it.”
Teacher Liu faced an additional personal challenge in that after his work grade was abolished his subsidies were paid based on the lowest grade of service. It took a six month lawsuit to finally get about 2,000 yuan in back pay and an increase of 55 yuan on his wage card. But, Li pointed out, even though someone who knows the policies and the procedures and uses the right methods can win in the end, "Where's the victory? There are a hundred others just in our county whose cases have not been resolved. These days, you can’t wait around for the money gods to drop it in your lap – you have to take your case to the higher authorities yourself and struggle to get anything!”
What use is the trade union?
Asked if the teachers had formed any sort of union in an attempt to better press their case, Li said: “We had thought of it, and we were collecting money to start, but the county government was playing games. Anyway, if you look at what Teacher Liu was talking about, they owe each teacher up to 60,000 yuan. Where are they going to come up with that sort of money?”
There was a trade union at each of the schools but the teachers didn’t ask the union representative take the matter further because: “There wasn’t anyone who dared. The chairman of the union was high up at the school – he was at the level of an assistant principal – and he didn’t want to lose his position.”
Several union members did contribute money to the teachers’ campaign but none of them dared sign their names. The reaction of the people in the grassroots union convinced Li and the others there was no use escalating their complaint to the county or provincial-level union organizations. "No matter what the Trade Union Law says; what union is going to fight for us?"
Likewise, the teachers have never hired a lawyer to bring an administrative suit for malfeasance against the education department in the courts. “Lawyers cost money, and we just don’t have the money. Things are so tight, we can hardly get anything done. Our only choice is to use the documents that we have in our possession to petition the higher authorities."
Asked whether it was only the cost of a lawsuit that had discouraged the teachers from seeking redress through the courts, Li answered: “In July, his guy came from the Shanghai Institute of Law, and said that this came under protection of workers' rights, so we said, that must be under the labour department. But no one knows where that is. We asked a lot of people, but no one could say whether it's in the city or in the province. That same guy said that as we teachers were under the department of education, it pretty much owned us – and we would have to go to the labour arbitration committee if we didn’t get paid.”
However the teachers said they did not how to approach the arbitration committee. While they knew about the content of relevant laws and regulations, they were unclear as to the specific procedures set by law to handle their case. When asked whether the teachers would accept free advice or help in bringing a lawsuit from knowledgeable people who heard about their case through the radio programme, Li replied, "If it were free - we could not even dream of that. We would be so grateful.”
The basic problem, Li said, was that government and Party officials simply ignore them. "Here in Renshou County, we are grain producers, and we have a saying: the new officials come empty-handed and leave full. One after another, they feed and go away. Some of them do work for the people, but in the end, they all fill their packs and go away." The turnover in county-level officials, Li said, was just too frequent, and for that reason, they tended to be irresponsible and fail in their duty to protect teachers’ rights and interests.
Han Dongfang's interview with Liu Yonghui and Li Jinjuan was originally broadcast in seven episodes in December 2006.