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Long journey home for migrant workers in wage battles

Lyu Qingfa is making his 16th trip to Tonghua in two years in order to demand wages held in arrears for him and his employees.

He boarded a full coach on Tuesday and departed from Changchun, capital of northeast China's Jilin Province, to travel 400 km to Tonghua. During the trip he was surrounded by migrants on their annual exodus home.

The Chinese Lunar New Year holiday is 10 days away and festivity is in the air: all other passengers were hauling huge trunks and gift boxes. Lyu, 60, was the only one traveling empty-handed.

He misses his family desperately. But he cannot go home knowing 20 of his employees are still waiting for a total of 3.25 million yuan (494,000 U.S. dollars) in wages that have been withheld for three years.

DEMANDING PAY

Lyu, a subcontractor, employed about 100 construction workers for a civil construction project in Tonghua in October 2011. "The project was to be completed in two years and three months, and the contractor would pay me 7.85 million yuan in wages according to our contract."

But the contractor, a subsidiary of the state-owned Beijing Shougang Construction Group Co. Ltd., paid only 4.6 million yuan after the project was completed, and told him to "wait a while" for the rest of the money.

The "while" has dragged into two years. Lyu paid most of the workers out of his own pocket so that they could either go back home or find a new job. Soon enough, he ran out of cash himself.

His latest trip to Tonghua was prompted by news that the head of the contractor's headquarters in Beijing was traveling to Tonghua. "The big boss might help settle the payment in arrears," said Lyu.

He spent the whole day Wednesday in the contractor's office waiting for news, only to be told the contractor needed to collect its own money in arrears before paying him.

China's construction sector has formed a hierarchy, with migrant workers at the bottom. Each level of contractor gets paid by the upper level, pockets some profit and pays those beneath them. When the cash flow is stopped by one shady contractor in the hierarchy, everyone at the lower level has to suffer.

Chen Sheng, a carpenter from southwest China's Sichuan Province, was luckier than Lyu: he waited less than six months for wages at a construction site 621 miles from home and was finally paid on Jan. 25.

But before he got paid, Chen and his 10-member family could only afford two meals a day, consisting of rice and deserted, half-rotten vegetables collected at a grocery market. He was paid 1,000 yuan when the construction project was completed in August and no job was available for months.

Two weeks ago the family celebrated his mother's 70th birthday in their temporary shelter, a prefabricated hut at the construction site.

The elderly woman longed to go home, but Chen had no money to buy even the cheapest train ticket. Chen's eldest son complained Chen was to blame for granny's suffering, and the birthday dinner ended with a fight between the two men.

Feng Qiang, the contractor who owes Chen his wages, claimed to be a victim himself. "The development company was supposed to pay me 17 million yuan by August, but until the end of last year, only 1.5 million yuan was paid," Feng said.

He eventually put his apartment in Zhengzhou and a car on mortgage and got 3 million yuan in loans to cover the migrants' wages.

Phone calls to Zhang Zhipeng, the chief executive of the development company, were unanswered.

ARM OF THE LAW

For nearly two years, Wang Guihai, a native of east China's Anhui Province, has been demanding his and 110 fellow workers' unpaid wages at a furniture plant in Shanghai.

Their boss fled in April 2014, still owing 1.1 million yuan in total.

Towards the end of 2014, the workers reported the case to local authorities in Shanghai's Qingpu district, where the plant was located. The boss was detained by police last August on suspicion of intentionally eluding debts.

The boss, surnamed Wang, insisted he was innocent. "I ran away because I had no money," he said in an interview with Xinhua Tuesday while in detention in Shanghai. "I'll pay them when I can, but who knows when I can earn a million?"

He shrugged off the workers' grievances with a light-hearted "so what". "Who has never been in debt? It's just natural to owe someone some money when you're really in trouble."

He will stand trial before the Chinese New Year, and Wang Guihai may need to appear in court as a witness. "But all we care is when we can get the money we deserve, not whether the boss is thrown in jail."

Zhang Zhiqing, a police officer in Shanghai's Qingpu District, said it was not easy for courts to decide whether an employer had deliberately refused to pay his employees. "They may have transferred all their assets beforehand and claim to be penniless."

Shanghai's labor and social security authorities handled 2,353 cases concerning non-payment of wages from January to November last year and settled 430 million yuan of wages in arrears for 133,000 workers.

Fifty-four unsolved cases were passed over to public security authorities, involving 28.8 million yuan, said Zhang.

Across China, labor and social security authorities are helping migrant workers get unpaid wages through negotiations with employers or coercive measures.

In north China's Hebei Province, authorities have helped 243,000 workers get 2.4 billion yuan of unpaid wages over the past six months.

When asked by his teacher to write a letter to his parents who worked in Guangdong Province, 13-year-old Wang Ziming wrote, "Dear Mom and Dad, I dream to become a lawyer so I can help you in lawsuits demanding wages in arrears. You can never imagine how sad I am when you finally come home at the end of the year, exhausted, disappointed and without getting paid..."

Wang, a straight-A student at a rural school in southwest China's Guizhou Province, said the annual reunion with his parents was often "bittersweet."

"I miss them and long to spend more time with them. But with resentment for their bosses, they are often irritable and sometimes discipline me up over small matters."


 

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