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Thousands Protest China Layoffs - 2002-03-13

Tens of thousands of laid-off workers have been staging daily protests at China's largest oil field, in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. This is the latest sign of growing worker dissatisfaction as China moves to streamline its unprofitable state companies.

Residents in Daqing city, in northern China, would only speak on the condition of anonymity. But they told VOA that as many as 50,000 displaced workers have gathered around the Daqing oil field almost every day to protest cuts in severance benefits.

The head of a labor rights groups in Hong Kong, Han Dongfang, says the protests have been going on since March 1. "They have been demanding that the enterprise break the contract from years ago. The enterprise used to buy out the workers, he said.

Mr. Han said that several years ago the oil field promised to pay its laid-off workers heating subsidies to help them get through the region's severe winters. But he says those payments were cut recently.

Local government officials have refused to confirm or deny that the protests have taken place, saying only that they are not responsible for the oil field.

But one worker, who asked that her name be withheld, told VOA that the government has broadcast announcements appealing to the workers to be more understanding.

The worker says that Daqing oil field officials cut promised severance benefits, cheating loyal employees, some who have worked at the company for 30 years. As a result, many are unable to make basic living expenses.

She adds that the protests have so far been largely peaceful, but that police have arrested some demonstrators, including all of the organizers.

Mr. Han, the labor activist, says that this protest in Daqing could spark more labor unrest in the region. "There will probably be more and more support action. There are others [in a similar situation] in the textiles. And [in] the coal mine industry there were also nearly one million-miners laid off in the same situation," he said.

The Daqing field produces 50 million tons of oil a year, accounting for half of China's land-based oil production. But Daqing is one of many state-owned companies in Heilongjiang and other industrial provinces in northeastern China that are inefficient and unprofitable. Unemployment in the region is far above the country's average, affecting virtually every household.

Cost cutting measures are being stepped up to help China compete internationally after joining the World Trade Organization late last year.