No happy new year for China's unpaid workers

Chinese migrant workers protesting over unpaid wages in front of a local government office in Qian'an city in Hebei province last week. Data from Hong Kong-based group China Labour Bulletin shows that in December and last month, there were 774 labour
Chinese migrant workers protesting over unpaid wages in front of a local government office in Qian'an city in Hebei province last week. Data from Hong Kong-based group China Labour Bulletin shows that in December and last month, there were 774 labour strikes across China, up from 529 in the previous two months, most of them over wage arrears.PHOTO: REUTERS

With economic slowdown, more are being owed salaries and labour unrest is on the rise

QIAN'AN/DONGGUAN • This year, labourer Fan Fu and 20 or so colleagues working on the Zixia Garden apartment complex in Hebei province have not joined China's legion of migrant workers returning home to celebrate Chinese New Year with their families.

Instead, they have camped in the offices of the property developer's subcontractor, demanding almost a year's unpaid wages and too angry and proud to go back to their native towns and villages empty-handed.

With China's economy growing at its slowest pace in 25 years, more workers face Mr Fan's predicament and labour unrest is on the rise, a concern for Beijing as it seeks to avoid social unrest even as financial pressures build.

"The developer has kept using the fact that they have no money as an excuse. As of now they haven't paid us a single penny," said Mr Fan, who brought others from his home town in the western province of Sichuan to work on the apartments.

"We really don't have any other options," he said.

The group had earlier petitioned the local authorities for redress, and staged protests outside government offices in Qian'an, a city in Hebei in northern China.

NO MONEY

The developer has kept using the fact that they have no money as an excuse. As of now they haven't paid us a single penny. We really don't have any other options.

MIGRANT LABOURER FAN FU, who has camped in the offices of the subcontractor of Zixia Garden's property developer. He and about 530 other workers on the apartment project are owed wages of between 20,000 yuan (S$4,300) and 50,000 yuan.

Mr Fan and about 530 other workers on the apartment project are owed pay cheques of between 20,000 yuan (S$4,300) and 50,000 yuan. They said the government had offered each non-local labourer 2,000 yuan in cash if they left for the holiday.

While the housing sector is among the worst-hit in China's economic slowdown, the pain is also being felt by blue- and white-collar workers in other industries.

NO PERMANENT WORK

It's hard to find a permanent job now. My aim is to find a permanent job after Chinese New Year, something I like. But it will be difficult.

MR ZHANG GUANTIAN, who quit his temporary, hourly paid job to go home for the Chinese New Year holiday.

According to Mr Geoffrey Crothall of Hong Kong-based group China Labour Bulletin, which tracks worker issues, there was a spike in protests in the last quarter of 2015.

Its data shows that in December and last month, there were 774 labour strikes across China, up from 529 in the previous two months, most of them over wage arrears.

At a printing factory in the western city of Chongqing, a Reuters reporter was present when a local official visited last week to make sure the boss paid his workers before the Year of the Monkey begins.

The official declined to speak to Reuters, although the boss later said it was an attempt to prevent unrest. "That's what the government is most fearful of,"said the factory owner, who did not want to be named.

China's senior Communist Party leaders, including President Xi Jinping, have long championed workers' rights and are often photographed visiting factories.

The government is concerned that protests over issues such as unpaid wages could spill over into broader dissatisfaction with its rule, as it has derived much legitimacy over the past decades from delivering a higher standard of living.

Before the holiday, Beijing issued a notice calling on the local authorities to "seriously investigate all incidents of wage arrears, so that migrant workers would be paid in a timely manner and in full", the state-run Workers Daily newspaper reported.

Over the past few months, however, the authorities have arrested at least seven labour activists in Guangdong province in the largest crackdown on organised labour in China in recent years.

In Dongguan, a city in the southern province of Guangdong that is known as a manufacturing hub, some factories sit idle behind locked, rusty gates, with advertisements pasted on their walls seeking new tenants.

Some of those still in business were withholding bonuses until after the Chinese New Year.

Brothers Zhang Guantian, 23, and Zhang Guanzhou, 21, quit temporary, hourly paid jobs at two plants, one making earphones, the other computer cables, to go home for the holiday. "It's hard to find a permanent job now," said the elder bro- ther, while waiting for a bus with two large suitcases.

Still, he is hopeful of finding another job when he comes back to Dongguan in the middle of the month.

"My aim is to find a permanent job after Chinese New Year, something I like. But it will be difficult."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2016, with the headline 'No happy new year for China's unpaid workers'. Print Edition | Subscribe