Pension Protests Flood Dam Town

Retired workers in central China demand higher monthly stipends amidst rising inflation.

yichangpensioners-305.jpg Retired workers from the Gezhouba Group hold banners protesting inadequate stipends in Yichang, Feb. 22, 2012.
Photo courtesy of a pensioner

A protest by thousands of retired workers who helped to build China's massive Three Gorges dam entered a third day on Wednesday in the central Chinese province of Hubei, participants said.

The protesters, who were angry over pension payments they say are owed to them, gathered on a large traffic circle after marching along and blocking a major thoroughfare in Yichang city, a city on the Yangtze river where their former employer is headquartered.

"Today is day three," said one protester surnamed Xu. "I think there probably were [10,000] there. It is still going on today," she said. "If we're going to do this, we should at least keep doing it until we get a result, otherwise, it won't be over."

She said the protesters had "many problems" with the way they had been treated by the Gezhouba Group, a key contractor on the Three Gorges Project.

"It's not just a single issue," Xu added.

Photos of the march posted online by participants showed large numbers of people gathered at an urban intersection amid traffic chaos, with police officers standing by.

Local sources said police hadn't intervened, but that Gezhouba employees had been visiting retirees and trying to persuade them not to join the protest rallies.

An employee at a long-distance bus station nearby said the demonstrations had caused severe disruption to traffic in the city.

"There have been really bad traffic problems," she said. "The entire road was sealed off, but I don't know the actual details."

Stipends inadequate

Official media said Gezhouba employees were complaining that those who retired before 2006 only receive a monthly payment of around 1,500 yuan (U.S.$238), while those who retired after 2006 receive a monthly stipend of more than 3,000 yuan.

The company's retirees, who now number more than 20,000, are also angry about what they say are unreasonable terms in the company's health insurance policies.

Xu said her pension of just over 1,000 yuan was no longer enough to live on, amid skyrocketing food prices in today's China.

"Prices are so high these days," said Xu, who retired in the 1990s. "What can 1,000 yuan buy nowadays? Wheat is a few yuan per pound, while fresh vegetables are one, two, or three yuan a pound," she said.

Wuhan-based rights activist Shi Yulin, whose parents are both retired Gezhouba workers, said the protests were sparked when Gezhouba Group chairman Yang Jixue told Hubei provincial lawmakers that the company's retired workers received pensions of 3,000 yuan per month.

"As soon as the people heard the news, they were furious," Shi said. "My father gets 1,700 yuan per month, while my mother only gets 800 yuan."

He said wages at the company had always been local. "People have been kicking up a fuss about this for many years, because they won't raise wages and pensions," Shi said.

Online posts said Yang's own family lives in the United States, and claimed he also has numerous property investments in Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities.

Calls to Yang's cell phone and to the Yichang municipal government offices went unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.

Sun Yingnian, a Gezhouba deputy manager, declined to comment on the protests. "I don't know about this," he said, before hanging up.

No local controls

A second retired Gezhouba employee, who declined to be named, said the Yichang authorities had little influence with the company, which is controlled directly by the central government in Beijing.

"They can't do anything about this," the retired worker said. "This is like a domestic dispute that has nothing to do with their own internal struggles, and they can't get involved."

"However, if anyone were to try to take this to a higher authority, they would probably step in [to stop them]," he said.

Skyrocketing inflation and the global economic downturn have fueled a wave of strikes and labor-related disputes across China since late 2011.

Activists say that workers are growing increasingly disgruntled over low wages, long shifts, and scant protection of their rights.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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