Vice-Premier Zeng Peiyan revealed Monday that more than 360 billion yuan (US$43 billion) in unpaid wages remains owed to migrant workers at thousands of projects invested by the government or real estate developers.
"Some have remained unpaid for up to 10 years," said Zeng, who insisted that all arrears should be paid by the end of 2006, while pointing out the government campaign to clear up back payments had been initially successful.
Zeng said wages unpaid in 2003 for migrant workers have basically been cleared up since the central government announced a three-year campaign at the beginning of this year.
A nationwide investigation has found a total of 360 billion yuan (US$43 billion), related to 124,000 projects, is owed to workers from various sectors, Zeng told Monday's national conference in Beijing on unpaid wages.
There may be various reasons for this, said Zeng, but governments at various levels should be responsible for wage arrears in government projects.
Many local leaders have launched unnecessary and lavish construction projects to enhance their status.
Zeng said government-backed projects should be first on the list and workers should be paid. But other enterprises should also be urged to pay wages in arrears as soon as possible.
He said unpaid workers involved in central government projects will get their pay by the end of this year. Those involved in local government projects will be paid by the end of 2005.
Zeng also warned that enterprises and managers that refuse to pay back wages to migrant workers must be held accountable in accordance with the law.
New arrears will not be allowed anywhere, he said, adding that accounts for paying salaries must be strictly supervised, and budgetary funds should be used to pay wages and salaries first.
Some migrant workers say the government's tough measures are 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 which was the equivalent of two farmers' annual incomes in 2003.
"We migrants wanted to be brought under umbrella of legal weapons, such as payment regulation."
Experts and officials also said it is necessary to develop a legal mechanism to ensure the timely payment of rural migrant workers' wages, thereby eliminating the root cause of wage arrears.
"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 make the current ambiguous payment regulation much clearer.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Security unveiled the regulation in 1995. It forces employers to "avoid intentionally delayed payment."
But Ding pointed out that the 1995 regulation "did not go into detail or recommend penalties."
Trade unionists want three articles to be added to the new regulation.
First, like every other worker or employee, migrant workers should be paid monthly or weekly.
Second, payment can be delayed on the condition that the trade unions agree. But this should be limited to a maximum period of two weeks.
Third, detailed punishments should be written into the revised regulation if employers violate it.
"We should ensure migrant workers have an effective weapon in their hand," said Ding.
(China Daily August 24, 2004)