China Steel Plant Halts as Workforce Protests Over Unpaid Wages

china-heilongjiang-steel-june-2012.jpg Chinese workers manufacture steel products at a factory in Heilongjiang province, June 27, 2012.

More than 1,000 employees from a steel company in the northeastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang marched on local government offices Monday in protest at what they said were several months' worth of unpaid wages, according to striking workers.

"They are all over there now, nearly 2,000 people," a worker at the Beigang Group's steel plant in Heilongjiang's Jixi city told RFA's Mandarin Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He said the workers had marched on the Jixi municipal government offices, holding banners and demanding to be paid.

"They are still there kicking up a fuss and waiting for something to be done, for a response," he said.

He said workers were complaining that the company owed them nearly five months' worth of back pay.

"[There are] about 2,000 [in the workforce]. About 200 have stayed behind here in the factory."

A second worker who also asked to remain anonymous said production had halted because of the strike.

"Even the furnaces aren't running now," the worker said. "The company ... said it would pay us 18 yuan (U.S. $3) a day, but that was only what they said."

"They never paid up," he said.

He said Beigang Steel, a former state-owned factory that was bought up by a local businessman and currently makes steel girders for the construction industry, hadn't raised wages in two years, and had defaulted on compulsory social security payments on behalf of its workers.

"They didn't pay in anything to our pensions or our unemployment insurance," he said.

Online response

Posts on popular Chinese social media sites also reported the strike and protest.

"At 8:30 this morning, more than 1,000 people staged a demonstration in the city center of Jixi," wrote blogger @gaoshuaihaimeifu.

A number of posts on the microblogging services Tencent and Sina Weibo also reported on the demonstration, saying the workers held banners that read "We want to live, we want to eat, give us our wages!"

Photos of the protest posted online showed hundreds of people crowding along a city street.

"I hope someone pays attention to the livelihoods of a few thousand people," tweeted social media user @tuaixiaofeiyang. "Beigang used to be an old-fashioned state-owned enterprise, which once brought hope and prosperity to the people of Jixi."

An official who answered the phone at the Jixi municipal government offices declined to comment on Monday. "We don't know about this," the official said.

Calls to the management offices of Beigang Group rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.

'Rustbelt' tensions

In July 2009, authorities in the northeastern province of Jilin called off a proposed takeover deal at a major steel factory following a violent dispute with angry workers after which a newly appointed general manager was killed.

China's three northeastern "rustbelt" provinces of Jilin, Heilongjiang, and Liaoning were once the heartland of heavy industry with massive state-run firms employing entire districts and towns, running schools, hospitals, and newspapers, and providing cradle-to-grave care for workers and their families.

While China is still the world's top producer and consumer of steel, the official policy is to force the sector to slim down and consolidate. But millions of layoffs in recent decades have led to increased social unrest in the formerly booming industrial heartland.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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