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Beijing scrambles to resolve pay disputes as CNY nears

Chinese paramilitary police blocking access to the residence of a construction firm boss after a group of up to 50 migrant workers stormed past security at the Qijiayuan Diplomatic Compound in Beijing on Monday. They were protesting against what they claim is an unpaid new year bonus. (PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE)

Publication Date : 17-01-2013


As the Spring Festival approaches, anxiety rather than excitement is building up among some Chinese workers who fear not getting their back wages before they return to their home towns for the holiday.

After last year's economic slowdown, not just migrant labourers but even some white-collar employees are bracing themselves for bad news - their cash- strapped employers are unable to give them their annual wages and bonuses.

These are usually paid before the festive period so that workers can buy gifts to take home.

Construction worker Lin Xiong, from Fujian province, is among the pessimistic.

"Without the money, I can't go back to see my parents, wife and two children in the new year," said Lin, who is still waiting in central Hubei province for a property firm to pay him and his team of 20 workers. They had worked for over a year on a hotel project that was completed in July 2011.

"Along with 540 other workers, the company owes us a total of 1.6 million yuan in back wages," he told The Straits Times. The sum is about US$257,000.

Problems of unpaid wages began creeping up late last year. The construction and export sectors, in particular, have been hit harder than others "mainly due to macroeconomic volatility", Qiu Xiaoping, China's Human Resources and Social Security Vice-Minister, told Xinhua on December 25.

There are no official statistics on the number of wage disputes in recent months. But cities like Beijing conducted checks this week and found - in one day alone - that 809 employees are owed 3.47 million yuan (US$558,000).

Six ministries have announced joint inspections in provinces this week.

"We have twice tried to petition the local county authorities, but to no avail," said Lin, who decided to broadcast his plight online instead.

Other workers have resorted to more drastic measures. On Monday, about 50 migrant workers reportedly clashed with Beijing police at a high-end estate not far from Tiananmen Square.

They had gone there to look for the boss of a construction firm said to owe them wages. They were later taken away in buses.

Other recent cases include one factory worker in southern China who reportedly jumped off a building after failing to get help from the authorities.

While worker unrest over owed wages is not uncommon, the situation this year will likely be closely watched by incoming president Xi Jinping and his new team.

They will not want any mass protests over wages to erupt before Chinese New Year next month, just weeks before they formally take over in March.

They are also under pressure to deliver on their populist promises made recently.

"The new leadership has placed special emphasis on concepts like the livelihoods and welfare of the people," noted Renmin University's Professor Liu Erduo.

"The (people's) demands are higher now. The new leaders will pay greater attention to this issue of owed wages."

Beijing has stepped up efforts, even holding a 12-ministry joint meeting to "ensure payment of workers' wages before 2013 Spring Festival".

Wage disputes raised by 10 or more people will be formally accepted by the authorities within one day, the meeting pledged.

This comes amid an online outcry over the plight of 130 workers in western Shaanxi province, who were photographed by netizens last Thursday kneeling in a public square for hours to beg a local property group to pay them a year's back wages.

The developer reportedly paid Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung more than a million yuan for an eight-minute appearance to promote the new property project. But it owed almost 2,500 workers some 60 million yuan.

Still, despite more cases being highlighted online and by the media, it does not mean the situation is getting worse, argued Prof Liu. He said "there has been a marked improvement since 2010". Also, employers cannot afford to owe wages because they will otherwise be short-handed after the Spring Festival, he said.

Zhicheng Law Firm, a large non-profit outfit that represents migrant workers, told online portal China Construction Web that the proportion of legal disputes involving unpaid wages that it handles has dropped from 66 per cent in 2007 to 18 per cent last year. It handles over 1,000 cases a year.

Still, Beijing-based lawyer Hao Jingsong stressed that more needs to be done to implement laws protecting workers. Punishment for owing wages - such as the stipulated jail term of up to three years - also has to be enforced fairly.

"If the law is not fundamentally strengthened, social conflict will become more and more serious," he warned.


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