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Long, Hard Road to Retrieve Defaulted Wages

The Investigation Report on Chinese Migrant Workers' Spending on Legitimate Rights and Interest Protection was published on May 23 by the Beijing-based Chinese Juvenile Rights Protection Center.

Xiao Weidong, one of the writers of the report, said that by mid November 2004, the sum of migrant workers' defaulted wages in urban areas had reached about 100 billion yuan (US$12 billion).

"We conclude that it will cost society 300 billion yuan (US$36.25 billion) to retrieve the defaulted wages," Xiao said. "We plan to submit the report to the National People's Congress, the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, and the Office of Legislative Affairs of the State Council for discussion."

To go through all formalities to retrieve less than 1,000 yuan (US$121) wages, a worker has to spend 920 yuan (US$111) and 11-21 days, or 550-1,050 yuan (US$66-127) for being absent from work. The state has to pay 1,950-3,750 yuan (US$236-453) wages for government workers, judges and administrators. The total cost is 3,420-5,720 yuan (US$413-691).

"Of the 17 cases we investigated, the costs exceeded 10,000 yuan (US$1,208) each," said Xiao.

Some migrant workers aren't willing to solve labor disputes through labor supervision, labor arbitration and lawsuits, Xiao said, and go to extreme measures such as kidnapping employers, blocking roads or even committing suicide.

"Worse is the fact that some of them either can't be protected even after they have paid a lot or get compensation that doesn't cover their costs," said Xiao.

He said there are 962 national laws and regulations on labor protection, many details of which are contradictory to those of local laws and regulations.

"While new laws and regulations are issued, old ones still haven't been repealed. An expert in law can't figure out the details in a short time, let alone migrant workers."

From December 12, 2003, Chinese Juvenile Rights Protection Center lawyers took a year and half to send 8,000 questionnaires to migrant workers in Beijing, Chongqing, and the provinces of Shaanxi, Guangdong, Heilongjiang, Shanxi, Hebei and Hubei.

Xiao said his and his colleagues' enthusiasm to do the report was sparked by Xiong Deming's disclosure of a local construction employer's defaulted payment of her husband's 2,240 yuan (US$270) wages directly to Premier Wen, who pledged to help migrant workers retrieve defaulted payments when he visited Longquan Village of Yunyang County, Chongqing in October 2003.

27 silicosis victims in 4-year struggle for compensation
Tan Conghua, one of 27 migrant workers from Shanyang County in Shaanxi with silicosis, had to go through numerous organizations to get due compensation, including:
Labor Supervision Team in Luonan County (where Tan worked), Luonan Labor Dispute Arbitration Committee, Luonan Bureau of Labor, Luonan County government, Luonan County court, Bureau of Labor of Shangzhou City, Health Department of Shaanxi Province, Intermediate People's Court of Shangzhou City, Higher People's Court of Shaanxi, Supreme People's Court, Correspondence and Visitation Department of Shaanxi Province, State Correspondence and Visitation Administration, and Ministry of Labor and Social Security.
The workers contracted silicosis while working at Chener Gold Mine in Luonan. They were diagnosed at their own expense in June 2001. Fourteen of them lost their lives, three of whom committed suicide from pain and hopelessness.
To date, they still haven't received any compensation.
In four years, Tan, their representative, had to visit the correspondence and visitation department of Shaanxi Province once a week. To save money on the trip, he just ate steamed buns and noodles and slept in a 2 yuan per night hotel.
"We have borrowed tens of thousands of yuan to get him treated and pay costs for his rights protection," said Tan's wife.
Protection of rural migrant workers' rights a big issue
After the report was published, Guan Huai, professor at Beijing-based Renmin University of China, attended a seminar on it.
"To protect rural migrant worker's rights is significant to China establishing a harmonious society," said Guan. "It causes a big burden and harm to their families as they spend much energy and money to safeguard their rights, which would usher in a series of uncertain elements to society, including kidnapping employers and revenge on labor contractors. Some even want to perish together with their bosses." 

Guan criticized the current labor dispute system, where trade unions mediate at first, the bureau of labor arbitrates if this fails and workers can only go to court if it is still not settled. Usually, the process of solving disputes takes several years. He said the procedure should be simplified, with the Labor Court specializing in labor disputes, as suggested in the report.
Guan also said law enforcement officials in labor organizations don't attach enough attention to rural migrant workers. Many migrant workers haven't signed contracts with their employers, so when disputes emerge they aren't protected. Guan suggests that the rights of rural migrant workers should be included in Labor Law and discriminatory regulations against them annulled.

(China.org.cn by Guo Xiaohong and Li Jingrong, July 17, 2005)

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