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Pay workers decent wages
(China Daily)
Updated: 2006-05-09 09:13

Pressure on employers who fail to pay migrant workers their wages has been mounting in recent years, thanks to media covering the issue and government departments and legal professionals that took actions.

We still have a long way to go before due payments for the workers can be guaranteed.

However, that is only one facet of the issue. An equally important aspect is the wage level, which is believed to have been unfairly low for China's low-salary earners, who work mainly in sectors such as manufacturing, construction, catering and domestic services.

During the past few months, there have been increasingly louder voices from both academia and the government for raising minimum salary levels.

The outcry comes at a time when the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Such a move will help narrow the divide. In addition, increased incomes for the low-salary earners would also be conducive to consumption growth, which holds the key to the country's economic progress in coming years.

The Ministry of Labour and Social Security in 2004 promulgated a set of rules on minimum pay. It stipulated that each province should set its minimum pay level according to a set of factors that include average pay level of the province, change of prices and lowest living cost.

It also required the local minimum level standard be reviewed every two years and modified if necessary.

But provinces, wary of hurting their enterprises' competitive edge relative to other places, have been reluctant to set high standards in this regard. In Beijing and Shenzhen, both among the most developed cities, the official figure of average monthly salary was 2,700 yuan (US$340) last year. But the official minimum threshold was set at a mere 580 yuan (US$71) in both cities. The highest minimum pay level is in Shanghai and its neighbouring Jiangsu Province. Their minimum monthly figure is 690 yuan (US$85).

The minimum salary figures are far from the ideal 40 to 60 per cent of the average pay cited by economists.

It is true that the minimum wage level should be a result of balancing a host of issues  workers' rights, labour force availability and structure and mandatory salary rise's impact on enterprises. At the moment, however, the balance should be shifted in favour of the workers.

As the country is still not in a situation where market forces can push migrant workers' wages to a reasonable level, the central government should take the lead to ensure the workers are reasonably paid.

The central policy makers should work out a more clearly defined methodology for the calculation of the minimum wage level to ensure it is not artificially low. They should also closely monitor local governments' application of the methods.

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