Hundreds of elderly teachers from all over China gathered in the Chinese capital on Monday 29 January to demand payment of long delayed pensions and other benefits.
It was the first time since 2015 that retired community teachers, retired substitute kindergarten teachers and substitute teachers from Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, Guangxi, Hebei, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, Hunan, Hubei, Inner Mongolia and Beijing had managed to organize a protest of this scale during their long-running battle with local governments for the same pay and benefits as civil servants of an equal grade, as stipulated by the 1993 Teachers Law.
Community teachers from Jilin join the 29 January protest in Beijing. Photo: 维权网
Defying sub-zero temperatures, the teachers started gathering around 8:00.am at the entrance of the Ministry of Education in Beijing. They chanted slogans and songs, took photos and videos to share in their social media circles to maintain morale and solidarity. The oldest protester was reportedly 91-year-old Zhao Xiuyun.
Moreover, as the Rights Defence blog (维权网) reported, many more teachers would have attended if it were not for the determined efforts of local officials to stop them from travelling to the capital.
The teachers elected six representatives of which four were allowed to engage in negotiations with Ministry of Education officials at noon. Their hopes, however, were ultimately frustrated after the officials at the other end of the table turned down their request to present their grievances to the National People’s Congress, China’s annual parliamentary meeting, which is due to be held in March this year.
Community teachers (民办教师) were seen as a stop gap solution to the shortage of fully qualified state teachers in rural areas when the government introduced a national nine-year compulsory education system in 1986. Community teachers have often been poorly paid, and despite becoming the de-facto backbone of rural education in China never enjoyed the same benefits as their state counterparts. The Teachers Law was an attempt to resolve the two-tier system, by absorbing community teachers into the state system and granting them the same status as civil servants, but rural local governments were reluctant to fully implement the law and many disputes have rumbled on for decades.
As the teachers themselves stated in their demands to the Ministry of Education: “Community substitute teachers are a legacy of China’s early reform, when our economy was not developed, our country was weak, education was badly needed and the resources were insufficient.”
When the country was poor, these teachers never complained, they devoted themselves selflessly to education. Thanks to the economic reforms the country is wealthy, workers from all sectors of state-owned enterprises have enjoyed proper compensation, that is not the case with community teachers. Policy reforms are many, implementation is not.
The teachers’ specific demands ranged from re-employment for community teachers who had been laid off before reaching the statutory retirement age, payment of fully entitled pensions and exemption of contributions for those who are legally retired, and compensation for the families of those who had already passed away.
Schools in China are classified as public institutions (事业单位), and hence should have a trade union. However, in nearly all cases these unions only act as a bridge between the Party, management and staff, with the goal of maintaining harmonious relations, often handing out token gifts during holidays and rarely representing teachers in disputes with management or local governments. In private schools there may not even be a union, teachers are often grossly underpaid and don’t even have employment contracts.
Lack of proper union representation means teachers learn of new policies after they have been announced, or are implemented by the government, creating tensions and disputes instead of social harmony.
For more information on this issue please see CLB’s 2016 research report Over-worked and under-paid: The long-running battle of China’s teachers for decent work.