02/08/2005, 00.00
CHINA
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Unpaid salaries spoil New Year celebrations for many migrant workers

Three migrants in four working in the cities are not paid a regular salary. Poverty and humiliation prevent them from going home for the holiday with some committing suicide.

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) – Migrant workers usually go home for the New Year celebrations and take their savings. However, 75 per cent of them are not regularly paid a salary and so cannot leave.

Workers' protests for unpaid salary, including suicide, have raised fears in the central government of possible social unrest.

In the past, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said he was going to deal with the problem. Now, he claims to have "substantially solve it" since 90 per cent of back pay disputes have been officially cleared up.

Zhou Litai, a labour rights attorney in Chongqing, remains sceptical of such claims. Having these measures is better than nothing, but many workers still don't get their pay," he said.

According to Prof Li Jianfei, of Beijing's Renmin University, more than 90 per cent of Chinese workers do not have a contract and are not regularly paid.

Even though government regulations require companies to pay their employees on a regular basis, many employers fake receipts and do not pay salaries on the pretext that they settle payments every six months. Once they have the fake receipts they refuse to pay and employees are left without any recourse before the courts.

Li Tao, director of Facilitators, a migrant worker rights NGO, said: "There are not many ways for workers to defend their rights and the cost is very high. Although there are tribunals to handle claims by workers, it is very costly for them to collect evidence to substantiate their claims."

Construction worker Li Jun has discovered how hard it is for migrant workers to demand back pay on the mainland.

For the past four years, the 37-year-old has been leading a team of workers on construction sites in Beijing. Many of the workers are friends and neighbours from his home village in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province.

But things started going wrong last year when Mr Li agreed to lead a team to work for a fellow villager, Yuan Zhongqi, on a deluxe villa development in a Beijing suburb.

Mr Li signed a contract with Mr Yuan a month after the project started in April 2004. But the project was aborted in August because the contractor did not have enough money to buy construction materials.

A total of 139 workers, including Mr Li's 21-strong team which specialised in reinforced concrete, lost their jobs.

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