China's migrant worker pool dries up
By Anastasia Liu (atimes)
Updated: 2005-11-10 10:15
On October 19, a migrant worker who killed four people over 5,000 yuan (about
US$625) in wage arrears was executed in China's Ningxia Autonomous Region. His
case had been much publicized by the Chinese media. Wang, a migrant worker from
neighboring Gansu province, had worked over a year for a building contractor
before quitting and lodging a complaint over withheld wages. Due to the
contractor representative's provocation and refusal to pay up, Wang stabbed him
and three others to death.
A migrant worker sheds tears lying in sick bed
in a Shaanxi hospital. The young man was beaten to serious injury as he
asked for back payment from a construction contractor.
The disputed sum - 5,000 yuan,
the annual income for the average migrant worker - in this all-too-commonplace
tragedy is only the
tip of a very large iceberg. A report published by the Legal Aid and Research
Center for Youth in Beijing estimates that employers throughout the country owe
Chinese migrant workers more than 100 billion yuan ($12.38 billion).
Migrant workers are temporary laborers from rural areas working without
official permits in cities. Many urban employers of these workers want their
effort, but not the liability for safety, fair wages, family services, and a
host of other rights furnished to those with residential permits by way of
birthright or deep pockets. The lack of education and training of migrant
workers partly explains their woes; according to the Ministry of Labor and
Social Security, 83% of migrant workers have only received junior high school
schooling or less, and 72% have yet to undergo any occupational training.
Yet this cannot explain fully the wage gap between urban residents and
migrant workers in the same position. Professor Cai Fang, of the Chinese Academy
of Social Sciences Center for Population and Labor Economics, estimates that
discrimination accounts for almost 40% of the disparity. As unregistered,
temporary workers in cities, migrant workers enjoy less protection and fewer
resources than their urban compatriots. Yet it is these workers who have long
plied the drills and shovels that are building the new China, "factory of the
world". According to the fifth national census, migrant workers without urban
residence permits now supply 80% of Chinese construction labor. This sort of
occupational segregation stems from a basic gap in status and rights between
those of rural and urban origin in the urban labor market.
Another problem is the structure and practices of construction management in
China. On top of the wage gap, many migrant workers cannot even get the pay they
were promised. Partly because of the transitory nature of the construction
industry, claims from construction workers make up 70% of migrant workers' wage
Most property developers do not hire workers directly; rather, they work
through building contractors who negotiate salary terms, supervise the work, and
distribute wages. In this hierarchical payment system of a debt-ridden industry,
wages may not reach contractors, much less make their way into workers' hands.
Contractors often have no legal permit to hire and withhold wages, but
developers will shrug off workers' demands, since they already paid the
contractors. To make matters worse, out of ill-advised trust or desperation,
some workers never sign a contract with their employer. They thus forgo any
legal basis for claiming wages. Such unprotected workers make up 13% of all
Finally, some workers may not even know the name and contact information of
the hiring company, as was the case for 46% of workers surveyed in Xian
recently. The minority who successfully get a warrant to claim wages may find
that the developer or contractor has closed down the company and set up shop
elsewhere, or even run off with the funds.
The central government has recognized the magnitude of this problem and made
getting workers their wages a key concern. In January 2004, Prime Minister Wen
Jiabao ordered eight ministries and committees to ensure that wages are paid.
The tide of exploitation, however, has showed no signs of ebbing. Why has all
this administrative marshaling failed?
While central policies set off in the right direction, their local
implementation seems only to stall workers with grievances. Requirements in
labor law for written contracts, proper payment and compensation are often
ignored in practice. While there are numerous bureaus and offices that workers
may approach for assistance, overlapping responsibility, conflicting central and
provincial regulations, procedural hassles, and high costs in fees and lost
working days often bar even the most determined from claiming their wages.
Frustrated workers often resort to extreme but less costly measures such as
blockades, demonstrations, and even suicide to claim their wages. Wang's
desperation is quite commonplace among his compatriots.
All the abuses have had an ironic result, and a troubling one for urban
employers long accustomed to cheap migrant labor. After decades of exodus and
little to show for it, rural workers are beginning to look closer to home for
higher, safer returns for their efforts. In 2004, employers in regions such as
south China began to notice a previously unimaginable phenomenon: migrant
workers were no longer a source of abundant, cheap, exploitable labor. Last
year, Hong Kong's Hang Seng Bank predicted that worsening labor shortages will
force enterprises along the South China Sea coast to restructure into higher
value-added industries. Low-wage manufacturers increasingly foresee moving to
the inland villages rather than having migrant workers come to them.
However, the booming urban construction industry, due to its immobility,
cannot avoid labor bottlenecks. Besides, any measures the industry may take
would not address the illegal, structural imbalances in the labor supply, in
that wages received do not reflect the actual market value of the work. To
protect labor rights and, in the process, stabilize the vital construction
sector, Chinese think tanks and NGOs have called for specific legal and
administrative reforms: protection for unionization at the private enterprise
level; holding workshops and other programs to educate migrant workers about
labor rights; reforming employment laws and procedures where necessary; and
placing the legal responsibility for documented payment to workers directly on
Besides empowering workers, any thorough solution should
also target individual employers. Company directors with a record of withholding
wages should be banned from starting any new construction company in the country
for an extended period of time. Contractors, if still allowed in the system,
should face similar restrictions. Then workers might not resort to fists or
knives to get what is rightfully theirs.