Workers laid off by a steel plant in Chongqing continued a sit-in outside the municipal government headquarters yesterday to protest over the detention of eight of their leaders and the closure of the factory. One woman protester said they would not leave until their leaders had been released. 'Many workers, including elderly people and women, are now kneeling down in front of the police office asking them to free the leaders,' the woman worker said last night, adding that she would return and join the sit-in this morning. 'We are protesting peacefully but the authorities have deployed over 1,000 policemen to drive us away and take away our leaders.' The mass protests began in August after laid-off workers at the Chongqing Special Steel Plant claimed they had been told to stand down without compensation. The steel plant, formerly one of the mainland's top steel producers, had employed more than 18,000 people at its peak. But in July, the company declared bankruptcy after incurring debts of more than 4 billion yuan. On August 12 more than 2,000 laid-off workers reportedly occupied one of the main roads in the city, paralysing traffic. The protesters backed off about a week later when Chongqing officials said they would hold negotiations with the workers. However, the negotiations failed to yield a result and the workers resumed the protest last Tuesday. They claimed the factory was still refusing to pay each worker the 2,000 yuan in severance payment they were demanding. A 41-year-old woman alleged corrupt senior managers were to blame for the factory's failure. 'These cadres spent 50 per cent of the company's revenue on their salaries and welfare,' she said, adding that her family had worked for the factory for more than 50 years. 'We all joined the company when we were kids but now we've got nothing at the end.' The protest in Chongqing echoed a similar protest in Liaoyang , Liaoning province , three years ago. Authorities there arrested the leaders and sentenced them to lengthy jail terms. The communist authorities are particularly concerned about protests at big factories and mines. Liu Xutao , a political scientist with the State School of Administration, said that workers had been sacrificed as Beijing embarked on economic reforms, because they were never really the 'masters' of the society. 'Workers are the 'masters of our country' is just a political slogan [used] since 1949. It has never been implemented in the political system,' Professor Liu said. He said that with the lack of unions similar protests would occur again because they are the only way for workers to struggle against exploitation.