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High cost of wage recovery deepens sense of futility in legal route, stirs up social unrest

China Lawyers' Net recently released a report showing that a rural migrant worker, seeking to recover unpaid wages, would need to spend about three times the amount owed him to have any chance of success. These figures add to the sense of injustice and tragedy evoked by the case of Wang Binyu, executed earlier this year after killing four people in a frustrated rage when he failed to recover back pay, the report said.

The website run by the All-China Lawyers Association on 29 September 2005 issued the "Report on the cost to migrant workers of safeguarding one's rights" which stated that to recover 1,000 yuan in unpaid wages, a worker would need to pay at least 920 yuan in various charges. He would also need between 11 and 21 working days to pursue his case, which could cost him between 550 yuan and 1,050 yuan. In addition, the cost to the community should include wages of government officials and court officials which cost between 1,950 yuan and 3,750 yuan. In all, the total cost of recovery would be between 3,420 yuan and 5,720 yuan.

The lawyers' agency concluded that the minimum out-of-pocket expenses for each worker seeking recovery of 1,000 yuan would be 3,000 yuan, or three times the money owed, and of course that was before counting daily expenses for food, travel expenses and accommodation.

In addition, these workers, who already constitute an underclass in Chinese society, may still have little chance of getting their wages even if they receive a favourable court judgment, the report stated.

The report stated that figures for total wages owed to workers to date in 2005 were not yet available, but statistics for previous years compiled by the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) showed that as at mid-November 2004, rural migrant workers were owed a staggering total of 100 billion yuan, a level unchanged from a year ago.

The problem was highlighted on 24 October 2003 when Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, in the full glare of the media, helped a migrant worker claim his overdue wages. The central government announced that the recovery of back wages owed migrant workers would be a priority task for governments, especially at the end of each year. The rate of recovery of wages was to be used as an indicator of a particular administration's efficiency. 

Cheating migrant workers of their wages had a heavy social as well as economic cost to society, the report said.

On 12 June 2005, some 60 migrant workers, originally from Chongqing Municipality in southwestern China, marched on their employer's office in Wuhan in Hubei Province where they were employed on a construction project. The Chongqing Commercial Daily on 14 June reported that the men were seeking payment of overdue wages amounting to 130,000 yuan. Their protest was crushed by a gang of about 100 men, hired by the subcontractor. In the end, 16 migrant workers were injured, two of them seriously.

In late June this year, Liu Changqing was sacked from a leather factory in Panyu, a city about three hours north of Hong Kong in Guangdong province. The factory refused to pay him wages owed to date and further fined him 14 yuan, according to a report of the Southern Metropolis Daily on 12 July. Desperate and penniless, Liu begged for 100 yuan to buy a ticket to go home. When this request was also denied, he stabbed his supervisor to death.

On 24 September, Xinhua News Agency reported two tragedies involving migrant workers which occurred in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, northeastern China. In the first incident, a worker who failed to get his company to pay him 4,000 yuan in back pay, set himself and his employer, a sub-contractor on fire. The worker was killed and the sub-contractor was seriously injured. Another worker, who found he would not get paid for work he had done, also attempted self-immolation, burning 40 percent of his body.

On 16 October, 120 migrant workers from Chongqing Municipality, Sichuan and Hubei Provinces marched on the office of Dong River Water Control Project to demanding payment of back pay totalling 250,000 yuan. The Beijing Evening News on 19 October reported that the group was met by a gang of 200 armed guards. In the clash between the two groups, thirteen migrant workers were reportedly injured, four of them seriously and two were drowned when they jumped into the Dong River to escape the attack.

The above incidents have not been as widely publicized within China as the case of Wang Binyu, the migrant worker from Gansu province who killed four people (For further information, see: Migrant worker executed for killing four over wage arrears). The case of Wang Binyu, who was sentenced to death on 29 June and was executed on 19 October, launched a heated debate across the country. The official newspapers have called for workers to take legal action to claim wages in arrears, but as we have seen the costs of doing so are prohibitive and the courts are overloaded with all sorts of disputes.

Employers meet workers' demands for back pay with many apparently legitimate reasons for not paying or not paying on time. However, the core problem is that migrant workers are not organized and therefore cannot negotiate collectively with their employers.

Since 2003, the ACFTU, the only legally permitted trade union in China, has adopted a policy of recruiting migrant workers. To date, this policy appears to be mainly concerned with boosting overall membership numbers and has provided little to workers in the form of rights' protection. This could be due to the fact that most union officials are drawn from factory management.

Looking at the astronomical level of unpaid wages due migrant workers, the underclass in China today, China Labour Bulletin believes that the trade union and government must do much more to assist workers. The union has had some successes in helping workers get the wages owed them, but the total amount recovered is relatively small. The government and the ACFTU must also recognize that there is a limit to what they can do, and that to get to the heart of the issue, the only feasible solution is to allow workers to organize themselves. It is only after migrant workers can build their own independent trade unions that they can meet with their employers on an equal footing and tackle the issue of unpaid wages. With a trade union operating within the factory, the workers can monitor management and watch how it handles the issue of unpaid wages. This will be the only way to root out this entire phenomenon and prevent further violence. The establishment of legally permitted collective bargaining may also lead to collective or class action lawsuits, if migrant workers decide to sue their employers, but this will mean taking the legal route to solving their problem, certainly a positive development.

10 November 2005
China Labour Bulletin