After Li Wenbin, an electrician from the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang, was laid off by the Wuchang Municipal Electric Power Bureau in 1996, he needed a job to make ends meet. He was hired by the Wuchang Soy Protein Plant, but less than three months in, he suffered severe burns from an electric arc-welding accident, which left him with a Grade 5 disability.
After the accident, Wuchang Soy not only refused to pay Li compensation and provide medical care, as required by law, it actually sacked him. Li went to the county labour bureau to get certification of his work-related injury but he was refused. He then endured a decade-long series of legal battles going all the way up to the provincial high court. But by the time Li finally won his work-related injury compensation lawsuit against Wuchang Soy in 2008, the firm had already gone bankrupt. And Li has spent the last three years pursuing the county labour bureau for compensation from the state, so far to no avail.
In November 2010, Li Wenbin talked to CLB Director Han Dongfang about his long ordeal and his diminishing hopes for the future. His case, while extreme, illustrates the problems many work-related injury victims in China face when trying to get compensation from a boss who refuses to pay up and government and court officials who refuse to help.
Taking the word of the boss at face value
When Li suffered burn injuries to his neck, chest and arms in a work accident at Wuchang Soy, the company initially refused to pay any compensation at all because it said he was not a regular employee. It was only thanks to the mediation efforts of the deputy chairman of the district Party committee that the company finally agreed to pay him a little more than 4,000 yuan to cover his medical expenses. However, Wuchang Soy then fired him on the grounds that he had "deliberately violated regulations."
"The factory said that as an electrician my only job responsibility was to monitor the machinery and not to operate it." Li still has in his possession however his original employment contract which states, "The work responsibilities stipulated in the letter of appointment are to ensure the proper operation (of the machinery)."
However, when Li submitted an application to the Wuchang Municipal Labour Bureau for certification of his work-related injury in December 1996, the bureau ignored all his evidence.
The labour bureau accepted the factory's version of what happened. The factory produced a false report [claiming Li had been at fault] and used it to mislead the labour bureau. The labour bureau didn't put any real pressure on the factory - after all, they are both on the same side - and in the end it refused to give me a work-related injury certification.
It is important to note at this point that China's work-related injury insurance system operates on a no-fault basis. In other words, when a work-related injury occurs, a work-related injury certification must be issued regardless of who was at fault in the accident. Only in cases where the worker has engaged in illegal or criminal behaviour, such as attempted suicide or self-mutilation, brawling, excessive drinking or deliberate violation of regulations leading to injury, disability or death, should the injury not be certified. But here, "deliberate violation of regulations" usually refers to intentional and malicious behaviour. Li's accident was at worst the result of his own negligence, and clearly not a deliberate violation of regulations.
The long road to the high court
Li then attempted to bring a civil lawsuit against Wuchang Soy, but before he could do so, legal procedure dictated that he first had to go through labour arbitration.
I went to the labour bureau to ask for arbitration, but they just ignored me. Then I went to see the deputy mayor and he ordered the labour bureau to mediate. But when the labour bureau finally agreed to mediate, it just upheld its original opinion and did not issue a work-related injury certification.
Next, Li filed a civil lawsuit with the Wuchang court demanding a work-related injury certification and compensation from Wuchang Soy. He lost the lawsuit.
They said that only the labour bureau was competent to issue a work-related injury certification and that the court had no such authority. Since the labour bureau had not issued a work-related injury certification, the court could not rule in favour of compensation. So I went to court for nothing. I spent several thousand yuan in court fees and lawyer’s fees and ended up wasting half a year.
Despite the increasing financial cost to his family, Li appealed the court ruling. The appeal court issued a mediation order awarding Li 18,000-yuan as a "humanitarian subsistence allowance" but still no official certification of work-related injury.
Li attempted to file another lawsuit with the Wuchang court demanding that the labour bureau issue the certification. The court initially refused to hear the lawsuit but then Li decided to contact the Heilongjiang Broadcasting Station's "Legal Thread" program. The program's legal expert told Li that:
As long as you suffer a work-related injury while you're at work, at your work station or in your work area, the labour bureau has to certify a work-related injury and the enterprise has to take full responsibility for your disability. Regardless of whether you bring a civil lawsuit or an administrative lawsuit, the court has to hear the case.
Li took a recording of the interview to the presiding judges of the court and told them that if they refused to hear his case, he would take the story to the media. It was only then that the presiding judges agreed to hear the case. Previously, the Harbin Intermediate People's Court and the Heilongjiang Province Higher People's Court had written to the Wuchang district court instructing it to hear the lawsuit, but the Wuchang court had simply ignored them.
The Wuchang court then ruled in favour of Li, ordering the labour bureau to reverse its decision not to issue a work-related injury certification. The labour bureau simply ignored Li and the court.
Later, I went back to the court. The court issued a judgement entitled Administrative Judgement No. 65/1999 ordering the labour bureau to again issue an administrative determination within three months establishing whether or not I had suffered a work-related injury.
In February 2000, nearly four years after the accident, the labour bureau issued its third decision, again refusing to issue a work-related injury certification. Li thereupon filed an administrative lawsuit with the Wuchang court. This time round, Li won a victory: the court ruled that the labour bureau must rescind its decision not to issue a work-related injury certification.
Again the labour bureau refused to comply and, in May 2002 issued its fourth decision not to certify a work-related injury. This time, however, it came up with a different excuse Li had "not been assigned by his superiors (to operate the machinery) and acted of his own accord."
Li then appealed to the Harbin Intermediate People's Court, which agreed to hear his appeal but did not uphold it. It was only when he went all the way up to the Heilongjiang Higher People's Court, that he finally won the lawsuit.
Two defendants were present during the high court proceedings: a deputy secretary of the labour bureau and the head of the insurance department of the social security bureau. When the judge opened the court session, he said: 'I want the labour bureau to appear in court and hear their closing argument. Let's see if they have anything new to say.' He said that if the labour bureau's argument contained nothing new, then it was certainly a work-related injury. The head of the labour bureau didn't say anything and ultimately did not produce any new grounds to justify the labour bureau's actions. So they naturally lost the lawsuit.
A hollow victory
The Heilongjiang Higher People's Court quashed the judgements of the courts of first and second instance and rescinded the labour bureau's decision not to issue a work-related injury certification. It also ordered the labour bureau to take a decision regarding the work-related injury certification within one month. But:
The labour bureau simply continued to ignore me. I kept going back to the labour bureau, wearing a sign around my neck that read: 'I demand that the Wuchang Municipal Labour Bureau to carry out the Higher People's Court judgement and immediately issue my work-related injury certification.' That’s how I proceeded: I didn't provoke the labour bureau, but neither did I stop or quieten down.
Li's persistence finally paid off: three months after the higher court handed down its ruling, the labour bureau gave Li his work-related injury certification.
But even then, Li still had to go through arbitration in order to get compensation, which he calculated, based on the severity of his injuries, should come to more than 200,000 yuan. But the labour bureau awarded him less than 100,000 yuan.
I based my calculations on the Measures for the Certification of Work-Related Injuries issued in 2004, but the labour bureau said that they had not seen this regulation and ignored me. But I didn't give in. I brought a civil lawsuit before the Wuchang court, which awarded me several thousand yuan on top of the original compensation.
At the end of 2008, 12 years after he had suffered a work-related injury, Li received a court verdict awarding him 98,000 yuan in compensation. But this verdict turned out to be worthless because Wuchang Soy had gone bankrupt and the court order could not be enforced.
Li then submitted an application for administrative review to the city government demanding that the labour bureau either pay him state compensation or issue an administrative decision regarding the compensation. The government's administrative review (No.00104) stated that the labour bureau should give Li a written reply on the compensation issue. However the bureau wanted to settle out of court and demanded that Li first withdraw his lawsuit.
The main thing they told me was that if I really wanted the money, I had better withdraw the lawsuit. That's what it boiled down to. I told them that they had to give me a written decision stating whether or not they were going to pay compensation. But the man I talked to said, 'Mr Li, rest assured, but we cannot do that.' Instead he told me, 'If you drop the lawsuit, I'll help you get your money.'
Li said he was running out of options and was thinking about going to the labour bureau again with another sign around his neck stating: 'I demand that the Wuchang Municipal Labour Bureau to carry out Wuchang Municipal Government Administrative Review Decision 00104 to immediately issue an administrative decision on whether or not to pay me compensation.'
In the meantime, Li and his wife both have to live off the monthly pension of just over 1,000 yuan he gets from the electric power bureau.
Han Dongfang’s interview with Li Wenbin was first broadcast in nine episodes in November 2010.