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Vice Premier Demands Pay for Migrant Workers

Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan announced on Monday that more than 360 billion yuan (US$43 billion) in unpaid wages remains owed to migrant workers at thousands of government or real estate development projects.

"Some have remained unpaid for as much as 10 years," said Zeng at a conference with local leaders from across the nation. He ordered that all the salaries owed in arrears be paid by the end of 2006.

Despite the huge figure, Zeng indicated that the three-year government campaign launched at the beginning of 2004 to clear up back payments had seen some initial success. Wages unpaid in 2003 for migrant workers have basically been cleared.

A nationwide investigation indicates that a total of 360 billion yuan (US$43 billion) related to 124,000 projects is owed to workers in various sectors.

Zeng said that governments at various levels are responsible for overdue wages in government projects. Many local leaders have launched unnecessary and lavish construction projects to enhance their status.

Government-backed projects should be first on the list, he stated, but private enterprises must be urged to pay wages in arrears as soon as possible.

Unpaid workers involved in central government projects should receive all of their back salaries by the end of this year. Those involved in local government projects will be paid by the end of 2005.

Zeng warned that enterprises or managers refusing to pay back wages to migrant workers will be held accountable in accordance with the law.

Accounts for paying salaries must be strictly supervised and budget allocations must give top priority to wages and salaries. New debts to workers are forbidden.

Some migrant workers say the government's tough stance is already having an impact.

Li Yong, a 24-year-old worker who has been in Beijing for four years, said he has been paid in full during all seven months of this year.

"The employers are scared now," said Li. But his boss still owes him about 5,000 yuan (US$602), a sum equivalent to two farmers' annual incomes in 2003. "We migrants wanted to be give some legal weapons, such as payment regulations, " he said.

Officials agree that development of a legal mechanism to ensure the timely payment of migrant workers' wages would eliminate one of the root causes of the problem.

"We hope there is a regulation with specific articles to guarantee every worker's immediate payment," said Ding Dajian, a senior official at the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).

Ding said the ACFTU has delivered a report to the State Council, urging it to clarify the currently ambiguous payment regulation.

The regulation implemented by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security in 1995 directs employers to "avoid intentionally delayed payment." But it omits details and, importantly, penalties for violation.

Trade unionists want three articles added to the regulation, according to Ding. It should specify that migrant workers, like all others, must be paid monthly or weekly. Payment of wages should only be delayed on the condition that the trade union agrees, but the delay should never exceed two weeks. Finally, specific penalties for violators should be included.

"We should ensure migrant workers have an effective weapon in their hands," said Ding.

(China Daily August 24, 2004)

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