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Migrants Frustrated over Unpaid Wages
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A young rural worker who was beaten up last week and died while claiming unpaid wages has aroused widespread indignation over the plight of China's migrant millions. Many of the migrants are anxious to be at home for the New Year.

Xie Hongsheng, a 28-year-old peasant from southwest China's Sichuan Province, died when he was beaten up by a gang of strangers last Wednesday at a construction site in northwestern Shaanxi Province. Xie was demanding immediate payment of about 40,000 yuan (US$5,130). This sum of money was owed to a dozen rural workers including himself and his father.

The team finished putting up a 14-storey apartment building for Guanzhong Construction Engineering Co. Ltd. in mid November but Geng Zhengjun, the project manager, had paid them only 11,000 yuan (US$1,410).

Xie's father, 51-year-old Xie Youyuan, also took a pounding at the hands of the thugs. He needs a few months to recuperate from a cerebral concussion and bone fractures, said Dr. Gao Lijun at the No. 3 Hospital of the Chinese People's Liberation Army in Baoji, the city where they were working with about 50,000 other rural workers.

Wages in arrears: a chronic problem

Factories and construction companies who withhold workers' pay have been a persistent problem in China in the last 10 years. Many of the workers are migrants from rural areas. Until recently they've had little bargaining power with management.

A survey of the Ministry of Agriculture shows China's migrant worker population has grown to 114.9 million with an estimated 6.7 million new migrant workers this year. The central government has ordered local officials to make sure workers are paid on time and in full but enforcement is lax.

A recent investigation found that 980 employers in northwestern Gansu Province owe 130 million yuan (US$16.6 million) in wages to some 130,000 migrant workers. Most of the debtors are construction firms and restaurants. This is according to the provincial labor and social security department that investigated nearly 6,000 businesses in October and November to make sure all migrants' wages are paid.

Meanwhile, the eastern province of Jiangxi has blacklisted 518 companies for defaulting on 62,000 migrants' wages of some 24 million yuan (US$3.1 million).

Anxious to bring home cash for the coming New Year holiday some unpaid migrants threatened to jump off high rises while others staged open protests. A group of 87 construction workers took their bedrolls to the doorstep of the Beijing-based Chaolin Company this week claiming 1.4 million yuan (US$180,000) of wages in arrears.

The workers had built an office building for the company earlier this year but were still waiting for 85 percent of their wages that should have been paid upon completion of the project.

"I can't go home empty-handed. I won't be able to face my family," said a migrant worker called Hu. He and his co-workers spent 48 hours in the open air sleeping on thin bedding in the freezing cold until local police and the Beijing Municipal Trade Union intervened in the dispute Wednesday.

Mr. Deng, a Chaolin Company manager, complained the workers were "making a fuss" but said the management was ready to solve the dispute "as soon as possible". On Thursday the workers were still waiting for a solution in their ramshackle, unheated sheds on the northwestern outskirts of Beijing.

Seeking help

Unable to get their wages after years of pleading, 137 construction workers in central China's Hunan Province recently sued a local court for failing to play its role.

Zhuzhou Intermediate People's Court solved a dispute between the workers and their employer, a local real estate developer, over 860,000 yuan (US$110,260) of wages in arrears since 2002 and froze the company's assets until all the default payments were made. But the assets were illegally sold in 2005 putting an end to the workers' last hope of getting their money. 

Only then was Liao Heping, legal representative of the developer, arrested. He was forced to pay 100,000 yuan (US$12,820) in cash but most of the money covered legal fees and very few workers got paid.

The workers then prosecuted the court for breach of duty but lost the lawsuit two weeks ago when the Hunan Provincial People's Higher Court ruled that market disorder, rather than the intermediate court, was to blame.

"We won't give up," said Liu Huihan, one of the three representatives who've been acting as plaintiffs on behalf of the workers. "Justice must help us recover our hard-earned money," said Liu, holding up a circular issued by the Supreme People's Court instructing subordinate courts to accelerate lawsuits brought by migrant workers to recover unpaid wages.

The document issued in August said local courts should deal promptly with lawsuits brought by migrant workers over unpaid wages. Once the cases are concluded the courts should ensure that court verdicts are enforced in a timely manner.

But the litigation process is often too long and costly for the workers who, with big families to feed, sometimes can't wait to move onto the next job.

"We don't encourage workers to go through arbitration and litigation. On the other hand we warn their employers to pay wages in time to avoid escalating friction," said Liang Yongan, a lawyer at a legal assistance center for migrant workers in Shijiazhuang, capital of north China's Hebei Province.

Six Chinese localities including Beijing and Hebei have set up such centers this year to provide free legal counseling services to migrant workers.

And trade unions in 30 major Chinese cities have teamed up to help migrant workers claim their wages. Early this year the trade union in Chengdu, in southwest China's Sichuan Province, helped 18 Sichuan farmers solve a notorious labor dispute with an employer in Xinjiang. Unable to get their wages after building a water storage facility the farmers tried to walk home to Sichuan in despair but got lost in the desert and one of them died.

With the help of its nationwide counterparts the trade union from their hometown claimed their wages from the Xinjiang company and obtained jobs for the 17 workers in Ningbo, a booming city in eastern Zhejiang Province.

China's trade unions in 2006 helped 2.8 million migrant workers claim 1.3 billion yuan (US$162.5 million) in wages, according to the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).

About 29.5 million peasant-turned migrant workers had joined trade unions by July 2006 and they  plan to recruit 8 million new members each year for the next three years, according to the ACFTU.

(Xinhua News Agency December 31, 2006)

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