01/24/2007, 00.00
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The other side of Beijing: workers unpaid for more than two years

Like every year at the approach of Chinese New Year celebrations, migrant workers must face derelict employers and complicitous government officials. Workers protest in demanding “their sweat back”.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – “We want to go home. Give us back our sweat and give us our money” read a banner draped at the entrance of a construction site. In this few words it encapsulates the tragedy (see photo) of some 30 workers who demonstrated yesterday in Beijing against their employers’ failure to pay them for a second year in a row.

This is a far cry from President Hu Jintao’s harmonious society which seems to care very little about unpaid migrant workers. The matter always gets worse as the lunar New Year approaches, because this is the time when migrant workers try to make it home, a small nest egg for the folks they left behind. But how can they do when almost 75 per cent have not been paid. Under the circumstances few can leave.

They are not few but tens of millions, appallingly exploited by Chinese companies, unpaid for months, for years in some cases.

Chinese New Year, which this year falls on February 18, is a particularly poignant moment. Workers in the cities try to get back to their home village, savings in their pockets, to pay for improvements or pay off debts.

According to Chinese tradition debts must be paid before the end of the year if one does not want to be shamed. But almost three migrant workers in four cannot do that.

Workers have been using various means of protest to get their money, including suicide. The number of men taking their own lives is increasing. And the central government is growing weary of possible social unrest that might result from such situations.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said after last New Year that he would solve problem. With that in mind he launched a campaign that, according to the authorities, has “substantially solved” the problem.

Wen has claimed that 90 per cent of back pay cases have been settled. However, many workers and human rights activists have accused the government of “complicity” with employers and of ignoring migrants’ predicament.

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