02/13/2007, 00.00
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Wages stolen from migrant workers amount to millions of euros

Each year, millions of migrant workers are not paid by their employers who are often subcontractors of foreign multi-nationals. The government does not protect the workers and going to court is a lengthy and expensive procedure. For years, Beijing has condemned what is going on but has failed to do anything to resolve the situation.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The feast of the Chinese Lunar New Year is the only time when tens of millions of migrant workers can go home. But millions are ashamed to return without having received wages due. The Communist state does not protect them so to get justice, workers resort to public protests or even to dramatic gestures like suicide.

According to official statistics, in Beijing along, 1.63 billion yuan are owed in back pay to around 800,000 migrants. But the problem is nationwide. Official data reveals that at the end of 2006, 1.84 billion yuan (236 million dollars) were owed in ages to more than one million migrants in Guangdong and 130 million yuan to some 130,000 migrant workers in Gansu. Migrants, especially in the building industry, are often not hired by the construction firm but by subcontractors that receive money for wages but do not pay workers.

Zhang Xicheng, a migrant from Henan, recruited at least 100 workers from his native city to work as bricklayers in Beijing, at the request of an employer. In September, they finished works but the subcontractor still owes 128,000 yuan to 61 workers.

They went to the labour and social security bureau in Beijing's Haidian district, but were told that all the officials could do was talk to the employer. They could not make him pay up.

They would need to pay a lawyer to take the employer to court. But reaching a verdict will take time and even if their right to be paid is recognized, the employer could escape without paying them.

Li Tao, chief co-ordinator for Facilitators, a non-government organisation protecting migrant workers, told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post that workers often compromised with their employers and got only a portion of their wages “they take 60% of their wages due and leave” to end the controversy.

Protecting migrants is difficult because only 65.7% sign a regular written contract, as revealed in a recent survey conducted by the Ministry for Labour and Social Security.

According to the survey that looked at 2.84 million migrant workers in 19,000 companies in 40 cities, migrant workers claimed they were owed an average of 2,100 yuan (0) each. Pays are anyhow low: a migrant worker works 8.7 hours a day for a monthly income of 1,020 yuan (1). More than 70% of the sample earned between 500 yuan and 1,200 yuan (-154) per month. Skilled workers generally earn more, about 970 yuan (125 dollars) while qualified workers can earn up to 1,400 yuan. Overtime was often expected but not paid: 8% worked up to 11 hours a day and more than one-third received no extra money. The minimum wage is far less. In Shenzhen, the minimum wage is now 810 yuan (4), the highest in the country.

Protests calling for wages due often have tragic outcomes. At the end of 2006, Xie Hongsheng, a young peasant from Sichuan, was beaten to death by a gang of strangers in Shaanxi. He was demanding immediate payment of about 40,000 yuan that was owed to him and other workers. 

The government and foreign multi-nationals have both come under fire. They take advantage of low cost labour but show little interest in improving the lot of workers.

Meanwhile, Zhang fears he will have a terrible New Year celebration. At home he will find the workers he recruited. They will surely ask him why they have not been paid yet.

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