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Migrant Workers and the Chronic Problem of Owed Wages

Chinese New Year has just passed. Before New Year millions of migrant workers hope to take their income and return to their hometown for reunions with their families after one year’s hard work. However, many of them have had to struggle for unpaid wages before they go home. In this issue, CLNT has chosen three articles focused on the chronic social problem of owed wages in China. How serious is the problem? We tried to find the exact statistics data but could not. On 26 December 2007, Sun Baoshu, the vice minister of Ministry of Labor and Social Security of PRC, said that governments of various levels had helped the migrant workers get back 43.32 billion RMB (USD6.03 billion) of owed wage in the recent four years
(http://finance.sina.com.cn/roll/20071227/09561892261.shtml). Unfortunately, he did not release the figure for the total amount of unpaid wages and how much workers still failed to get back. It is obvious that 43.32 billion is only the tip of the iceberg because less than 3% migrant workers can get support from legal channels provided by the governments. For example, in the construction industry, 72.2% workers’ have delayed wage payments or arrears

One can imagine that unknown billions of dollars are owed to Chinese workers, especially migrant construction workers. To illustrate the point, consider this. Recently, the big business news has been BHP Billiton’s plan to buy Rio Tinto for more than £65bn (USD130bn) while China’s Chinalco and Alcoa of the US teamed up to buy a 12 per cent stake in the Anglo-Australian mining group (Financial Times, 1 February 2008). With a stretch of imagination Chinese migrant workers would have no problem buying up Rio Tinto with their unpaid wages.

Or to put this in the context of Chinese government policies for China’s peasantry, in 2005, the government announced with fanfare that henceforth there would be no more agricultural tax
(http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2005-03/06/content_422126.htm). It was hailed as if the government had done a big favor for its rural population. But it amounted to just USD1.7bn a year. The above two comparative figures underline seriousness of the unpaid wage problem in China.

These three articles selected by CLNT are taken from newspapers and the internet. The first article is an official comprehensive guide informing workers how to get back unpaid wages published in Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, issued by local government. Through this we can see some improvements in local governments because they have become more active in involving themselves to solve the prevalent problem and try to enhance workers’ legal consciousness. However, this article is too optimistic and mistaken in its analysis because it neglects the truth that most legal channels are not effective and workers must pay high costs in time and money for legal arbitration. And it is also unfair that the guide stigmatizes workers’ radical and collective actions as “dramatic demonstrations to win wages” (taoxin xin) or “vicious behavior to get back wages” (e-yi taoxin). This document underlines the endemic nature of the problem.

The other two articles disclose the difficulties which migrant workers face when they ask for their wages. Both of them focus on the workers in the construction industry because this is the industry in which workers suffer the most. The second article is written by someone who works in a labor law enforcement department that explains how the fundamental reasons for chronic unpaid wages in the construction industry are the lack of effective regulations and management disorder on construction projects, particularly concerning recruiting. Sometimes workers even do not know whom they can ask for wages because there are many tiers of subcontractors. The third article is about the miserable story of Chen Dejun, a migrant worker who had been appealing for his wages for five years but still failed. Why do migrant workers usually not trust the government and legal channels? The story mentioned the essential reason that the government has not provided sufficient and valid support for migrant workers. On the contrary, migrant workers have to bear high costs and fees for lawsuits.

Owed wages is not a new problem, but it is still very serious. In addition to the three articles above we have found many other stories from the internet about migrant workers in the construction industry who are owed wages (see the attached pdf version of this introduction). Most of them try to take individual actions to claim their wages, such as block traffic, hurt themselves, and even harm others. And some of them are even badly attacked when they confront their employers. In one dramatic example, the China Labour Bulletin reports that on 15 January this year a worker in Sichuan had his arm cut off by armed thugs after he asked his employer for unpaid wages.

What can be done to assist these workers? As commented by the Yanzhao Metropolitan Daily (Yanzhao Dushibao), a newspaper based on Hebei Province, North of China, now there is a mobilization of social resources helping migrant workers get back their unpaid wages (http://yzdsb.hebnews.cn/20071114/ca795834.htm). The most important step is that government at various levels can effectively implement legal regulations and really take practical measurements to regulate labor. And in the public sphere, the media, NGOs and community activities also can be new social forces to support workers. Workers need their “agents” to strengthen themselves and should be organized as collective groups rather than individuals. Recently, a case demonstrated such organized power for retrieving unpaid wages. The local governments in workers’ hometowns help provided legal support to migrant workers. A legal team from Xinyang, Henan Province went to Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and helped seek defaulted wage payments for their people from Xinyang. The team of six lawyers helped about 300 migrant workers win back 6 million RMB (USD835,770) in 17 days (http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-01/29/content_7515686.htm).

PDF Version of this introduction with additional photographs and workers’ cases

CLNT_owedwages_INTRO.pdf [345.50KB]

Here are the translated articles

1) “Comprehensive Guide to Retrieving Wages”
CLNT_guide_getting_wages.pdf [134.86KB]

2) “Tracing the Causes of Owed Wages in the Construction Sector”
CLNT_construction_owedwages.pdf [130.81KB]

3) “Owed Wages Unresolved After Five Years: the difficulties of a migrant worker chasing back wages”
CLNT_5years_owedwages.pdf [147.46KB]

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