In the latest tragedy to hit China’s troubled construction industry, the 14-year-old daughter of a labour contractor, who was owed nearly a million yuan, fell to her death from the 16th floor of the residential building her father and his team of construction workers had been working on for two years.
The Chinese media reported that Yuan Meng had taken the day off school in Jizhou, Hebei on 19 January to support her father, Zhang Hao, in his long-running campaign to get the more than 900,000 yuan reportedly owed by the developer Kailong Property Development Co. Ltd. Zhang was desperate to get the money so that he could pay his workers and suppliers before the Chinese New Year holiday.
“I will go with my dad and mom to demand the wages they are owed,” Yuan told her family. When her parents got into an altercation with sales staff on site, Yuan and her grandmother climbed up the building to continue their protest. The Huaxi Metropolitan Daily reported that Yuan’s aunt tried to bring them down but Yuan fell. Although she landed on an air mattress set up by the local fire brigade, Yuan later died of her injuries in hospital.
The incident comes just one month after Zhou Xiuyun, the 47-year-old mother of a construction worker in Taiyuan, Shanxi, died after being detained by police during a protest over 29,000 yuan in wages in arrears owed to her son and several other construction workers.
These tragedies once again highlight the systemic problem of wages arrears that has plagued the construction industry in China for decades. The issue has become more intensely felt during the last year as the slump in the property market has led to finances drying up and millions of workers going unpaid for months on end. As the Chinese New Year holiday draws nearer, construction workers have become increasingly desperate and the number of protests has escalated dramatically. See photo below.
Construction worker protest in Beijing, October 2014.
China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang argues that the time has now come for the Chinese government to take real action to ensure that construction workers get paid in full each month as required by the law.
Some 35 years ago when rural labourers first started working on construction sites in China they accepted payment at the end of the year or at the end of the project. But now that way of doing business is clearly unacceptable. The 1994 Labour Law states that workers have to be paid every month but this law has never been applied to the construction industry. That has to change.
Han also stressed that construction workers and government officials need to put pressure on the currently moribund construction industry trade unions and transform them into real unions that they can represent different trades in the industry, plumbers, plasterers, electricians etc.
If the union can represent these different trades there would be no need for these labour contractors to provide labour services. The developer or main contractor could simply go to the union and ask for a certain number of workers for a certain number of months to be paid at an agreed monthly rate.
Han pointed out that labour contractors like Zhang Hao were often put in an impossible position between the main contractor or the developer and their workers. The system of multiple layers of sub-contacting was no longer sustainable, he said.