12/30/2014, 00.00
CHINA
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Beijing: migrant workers sleep for three nights in an underpass to get unpaid wages

After completing a project between March and September on one of Beijing's many construction sites, the contractor refused to pay the workers' wages. The latter protested in front of a government office and in a nearby underpass. Only "media coverage helped us" get paid, said one. An estimated 40 million workers are in the same slave-like conditions.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - After three nights sleeping in an underpass near a government building in Beijing, a group of about 80 Chinese migrant workers won their fight against their employer over unpaid wages.

The workers tried all legal venues to settle the three-month dispute without success. Eventually, "media coverage helped us a great deal," one of them said.

The workers, who come from Shandong, Hebei, Henan and Gansu provinces, began working for the same construction company in March of this year on a project in Beijing's Chaoyang district.

In September, after the work was completed, the migrant workers asked to be paid, but the contractor refused to do so alleging a shortage of funds. Each worker was owed between 10,000 yuan (US$ 1,600) and 30,000 yuan (US$ 4,800).

After trying to get the Labour Bureau and the Bureau for letters and calls involved, workers gathered in front of the district government office on 22 December and for three days tried to draw attention to their plight.

"They didn't let us sleep outside the government building," one of the workers said saying," because this would "affect the image of the city." Thus, "They threatened to take us away if we didn't comply. So we all went to the underpass".

Once the story appeared on youth.cn, the website of the Central Commission of the Communist Youth League, it was picked up by other mainland news websites and shared on social media.

Under public pressure, the employer showed up yesterday morning at the underpass and paid almost all workers. Others went back to their dormitory building where they should receive their wages shortly. "No matter what, the news story has helped us solve the problem," one of them said.

Their story is not unique. In China, some 40 million migrant workers have moved from the countryside to urban areas where they have built the country's modern cities and infrastructure.

However, although the construction industry is worth about 12 trillion, the "engine" often runs on empty. Loans from banks and state bodies go through complicated channels before ending up funding construction projects.

Given the mainland's high levels of corruption and malfeasance, contractors end up pouring almost everything into bribes. And with the collusion of the authorities, they often threaten, beat and even get migrants arrested in order not to pay wages.

This is especially tragic at Chinese New Year, a holiday traditionally spent with family. Deprived of their wages and unable to pay debts or the journey back home, hundreds of workers choose suicide rather than face the shame of returning home empty-handed.

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