Workers seeking back pay from negligent employers have been attacked by thugs, detained by police and threatened not to talk to the foreign media. On 15 January 2008, Wang Chao a migrant worker from Sichuan had an arm chopped off by hired thugs from the construction company in Nanjing when he attempted to obtain the wages owed him. And on 30 January, more than 20 workers laid-off from a construction company in Sichuan were detained by police after they marched on the municipal government to demand their wages.
In the Nanjing incident, a subsidiary of a major state-owned company, China State Construction Engineering Corporation, hired a group of men armed with knives and steel rods to attack workers’ representatives. Wang Chao had his left arm chopped off but was taken to hospital in time for re-connective surgery.
The local public security bureau is investigating the incident but Wang Chao’s legal representative, Chen Xuandong, from the Nanjing Centre for Legal Assistance, has pointed out that because the criminal investigation has yet to determine if the company, its sub-contractor or the actual assailant was legally responsible, they have thus far been unable to file a civil suit for damages.
In Sichuan, more than a hundred retrenched workers from the Panzhihua Highway Construction Company protested at the Panzhihua municipal government offices at the non-payment of wages and benefits dating back to 1993. Radio Free Asia reported that the government responded with 400 police officers who detained over 20 workers and later searched the homes workers representatives, warning them that any contact with the foreign media would be treated as “collusion with foreigners,” a political offence.
One worker told RFA that wages and benefits were owed to around 2,000 retirees and about 700 workers laid-off when the company was privatized. Many workers were still owed 65 percent of their salaries, she said. The Chengdu based Human Rights group Justice, which has been representing the workers, says that it is now being investigated by the police for its role in the dispute.
The non-payment of wages and benefits is probably the most common grievance of workers in China today. Disputes arise both the restructuring of state-owned enterprises, and in the private sector where employers routinely withhold wages for months, even years on end. The problem is especially serious in the construction industry, which employs large numbers of migrant labourers.
Thanks to the growing awareness among workers of their legal rights, and the work of citizen activists (gongmin dailiren) in pursuing wages in arrears through the labour arbitration and court system, increasing numbers of workers are recouping their back pay. However, many employers have refused to pay court and arbitration committee mandated awards. According to a Beijing-based legal aid centre for migrant workers, about 56.5 percent of employers refused to carry out the verdicts of the courts or the arbitration committees. And only 47 percent of workers received compensation equivalent to or more than their wages in arrears.
Others employers are responding with extra-legal methods, intimidating and physically attacking workers and their representatives seeking the wages they are owed. The well-publicized attacked on migrant worker activist Huang Qingnan in Shenzhen last November was not an isolated incident but, as the above examples show, is illustrative of a worrying trend across China.