- Language Tips
A new but sad story is unfolding across China. With Spring Festival approaching, migrant workers have taken to the performing arts - not for recreation but for getting their dues. In Wuhan, Hubei province, several migrant workers performed Gangnam Style dance to demand their salaries. In Xi'an, Shaanxi province, they dressed up as ancient officials to seek their collective dues of about 4 million yuan ($642,764).
Migrant workers are resorting to such methods also because society, in general, has become insensitive to the rising number of cases of their fellow workers' threatening to jump from tall buildings in a desperate bid to get their hard-earned money.
The amendment to the Criminal Law in 2011 made defaulting on wages a crime and was expected to solve the problem of wage default. But almost two years on many migrant workers are still not paid on time.
The law has not made it any easier for lawyers to get migrants their wages through legal means, because the ambiguous nature of the crime of defaulting on wages makes it difficult to sentence employers even if they are guilty.
According to statistics from the Supreme Court, only 152 such cases have been admitted by courts at different levels and only 120 offenders punished since May 2011. It's a pity that the law hasn't helped migrants much in getting their salaries on time.
This month, the Supreme Court issued a judicial interpretation of the law to deal with wage default cases. The interpretation gives the specific definition of wages, guidelines for judging whether an employer deliberately hid assets or went into hiding to avoid paying wages, and details about situations when an employer who refuses to pay workers' salaries is solvent or not.
The 2011 amendment said an employer might be fined and sentenced to jail for up to three years if the amount of unpaid wages was relatively large but did not specify how much was considered large. The judicial interpretation makes that clear: between 5,000 yuan and 20,000 yuan not paid for more than three months.
The interpretation also gives details of punishments if disputes over unpaid wages between employers and workers turn violent. Employers who use violence to silence workers demanding their unpaid wages could face up to seven years in prison.
Legal experts say the judicial interpretation will make it easier to deal with wage default cases. Though it's good to see that the law has been made effective enough to safeguard migrant workers' rights and interests, the problem of migrant workers cannot be solved through law alone.
Sound legislation can indeed bring guilty employers to book, but migrant workers also have to pay a price to safeguard their rights. In 2007, an NGO providing legal aid to migrant workers issued a report, which said migrants might end up spending 920 yuan ($148) directly or indirectly and 11 to 21 days to get 1,000 yuan in arrears through legal means. That by any yardstick is a high cost to pay for a migrant worker.
Besides, many migrant workers lack the necessary education, legal knowledge and awareness to safeguard their rights and get their arrears through legal methods. And although migrant workers can be taught to sign labor contracts and preserve evidence of labor relations, in reality they can hardly ask their employers to fulfill those requirements.
Therefore, appealing to the law may be the last resort for them. It is more important that the authorities take stricter measures to prevent employers from defaulting on wages than to punish them after a case is highlighted.
Most of the wage default cases take place in the construction industry. Different from other industries that pay employees every month, employers in the construction industry more often than not pay their employees after a project is completed (or after one full year).
Sub-contracting is another reason why employers default on wages in the construction industry. One of the main problems in the construction industry is that one contractor sub-contracts a project to a sub-contractor, who then sub-contracts it to another to make quick money. It's not uncommon to see half a dozen sub-contractors in one project, which creates shortage of finance. And being at the bottom of the finance chain, migrant workers are the last to get paid.
Worse, if one of the sub-contractors runs away or defaults on wages, migrant workers don't know who they should turn to get their wages. This makes migrant workers in the construction industry the most vulnerable section of the country's workforce.
The authorities, therefore, should establish a new salary system and supervise employers to ensure they pay migrant workers every month instead of once a year or after a project is completed. They should also restrict the number of sub-contracts in a project.
More importantly, they should introduce a nationwide security deposit system in the construction industry. Under the system, before starting a project an employer should be made to deposit a certain amount in a bank, which can be used to pay workers in case he defaults on wages or goes into hiding to avoid trouble.
The authorities should also set up a credit system in the construction industry, under which the credibility and goodwill of an employer will depend on his performance in terms of paying wages to workers on time. Apart from penalizing employers who lose their credit points by defaulting on wages, the authorities should also make their names public so that they make amends before starting their next venture or lose out to the better-performing and more socially committed employers.
Only by taking strict measures to punish employers defaulting on wages and setting up a safety net for migrant workers can the authorities fulfill the goal of eradicating the menace of wage defaults by the end of 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15).
The author is a writer with China Daily.
(China Daily 02/01/2013 page9)