But when the 21-year-old migrant worker from Sichuan demanded her back pay, the boss refused point blank. Distraught, Liu went back to her dormitory and jumped from the fifth floor.
She sustained serious injuries and was taken to hospital. But once she was out of critical condition, the company refused to continue paying for her medical treatment because, management said, she had officially terminated her employment eight days earlier.
Liu had only “left” the factory because management refused to allow her any time off before the end of the year. If she took unauthorized leave, the company said it would keep her last two months’ wages, about 3,500 yuan. However, Liu was completely exhausted after working every weekday until 10.30.pm, transporting goods from the warehouse to the factory floor. On 6 December she decided to take a week off without authorization.
It was when she returned to the factory to collect her back pay on 18 December that the tragedy occurred. Liu’s fall was broken by the dormitory’s second storey podium, causing multiple fractures and severe bruising. Liu’s husband told the Southern Metropolis Daily that the company had provided 47,000 yuan to cover treatment in the hospital’s intensive care unit but that payments had stopped once she was out of danger, and that subsequent hospital bills had already reached 30,000 yuan. Unless the family can get additional funds, he said, the hospital could stop treatment at anytime. On 10 January, Liu’s family and friends went to the factory to ask for more money but were refused.
Liu, already a mother to a three-year-old daughter, could be permanently disabled unless she gets an operation, and there is a chance she will be dependent on her husband, also a migrant worker, for the rest of her life.
Liu Yongli is just one of countless young lives ruined simply by the refusal of the boss to pay wage arrears. Two days after Liu jumped from her factory dormitory, on 20 December, a 17-year-old factory worker in the northeastern city of Jilin reportedly stabbed his boss to death in a dispute over wages. In this case, the amount owed was even less, just 700 yuan, but the boss still refused to pay. Now a 17 year-year-old faces at best life imprisonment for one act of violence brought about by the intransigence and callousness of an employer who thought he was above the law.
These two cases might be extreme examples but as the official Global Times reported today, relatively minor skirmishes, fights and arguments over unpaid wages “most likely occur every day across the country” as the traditional lunar new year holiday approaches, and migrant workers become increasingly desperate to get paid before heading home.
The government has been aware for the seriousness of the wage arrears problem in China for decades now but it has so far failed to effectively address the issue. Even the Global Times suggested that despite the ritualistic “end-of-year speeches by Beijing officials in support of migrant workers,” the problem was actually getting worse. The paper quoted a Beijing University researcher who said that on the capital’s construction sites, which employ around one million migrant workers: “the problem of migrant labourers not getting paid isn’t getting any better.”
And the situation will not improve until bosses are forced to take their legal responsibilities seriously and pay workers on time and in full each month according to their employment contract. One way is to criminalize the non-payment of wages; another is for local labour departments to ensure that law is enforced in the first place, but, as everyone knows, the chances of that happening are remote in the extreme.
However, if the government continues to nothing more than express its professed concern and pressures employers to pay up just once a year, more avoidable tragedies will occur and more young lives will be ruined.