01/27/2006, 00.00
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Once again many migrant workers are without pay on Lunar New Year

Despite promises from Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, many employers fail to pay their workers before vanishing. The government wants our trust but does nothing, says a supervisor.

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) – Chinese New Year is a time when migrant workers go home with the savings they have put aside over the previous year, but almost three in four is not paid and so cannot make the trip for lack of money. It is commonplace for tens of millions of people, exceptionally exploited by employers, to be left without wages for months, if not years.

The problem gets worst in the period leading up to Chinese New Year because tradition dictates that people go back to their family and place of origin, taking their year-long savings to improve their family's living conditions and pay off debts. Failure to settle accounts means shame. But again, three workers in four are not paid.

Over the last year, this has led to mounting protests, including suicide attempts, alarming the central government about possible riots.

In the wake of last year's Chinese New Year, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said the problem would be solved. Now, he claims to have "substantially solve it" since 90 per cent of back pay disputes have been officially cleared up.  But construction team leader Zhou Zhiyong disagrees. He just discovered how hard it is for migrant workers to get their back pay.

A construction worker since 1996, Zhou gradually worked his way up to the position of construction site supervisor and recruited a 700-strong team to build a mall in Beijing in 2004. He took all the appropriate measures he could for his protection. He was not the sub-contractor but was hired as a supervisor and received a monthly salary.

When about 700 workers staged a protest on Malian Road in June 2004 after the contractor had refused to pay, the government has to step in to resolve the dispute.

Under government pressure, the contractor paid about 300 workers and signed an agreement to pay the rest by December 2004. But then he disappeared.

"It is unbelievable. Before we won the lawsuit and when workers staged a protest in the street, the government officials pledged to help us and asked us to trust them," he said. "Now that we have won the case, they say they can do nothing and we are supposed to find out where the contractor is hiding."

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