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China's Government Acts to Help Migrant Workers - 2004-08-24


China has ordered companies to pay billions of dollars in back wages to migrant workers. Analysts say the move is meant to stave off possible unrest among the growing numbers of laborers who are flocking to the cities in search of work.

Like millions of people across China in recent years, Zhang Wei left his farm in impoverished Hebei Province to find a job in one of Beijing's many construction projects. He considers himself lucky, earning more than twice the usual salary of an unskilled laborer.

Mr. Zhang says he takes home $120 a month, the result, he says, of working for the same company for several years.

Mr. Zhang spends his day hauling cement in a luxury housing development that will be sold to wealthy Chinese and to foreigners. He says he believes the fact that foreigners and high-profile figures are involved means his employer is under scrutiny to keep things honest and pay him on time.

The government this week ordered companies to pay migrant workers back wages totaling more than $43 billion. The move follows growing concern over the treatment migrant workers receive in China.

Earning the lowest wages and often getting no health care or other benefits, migrant workers are regarded as the lowest strata in China's labor force. Many companies refuse to pay migrants after they have worked for months.

Analysts say there is a growing consensus among academics and government officials that the situation could backfire on the communist leadership. Professor Stephen Frost is an expert on China labor issues at the City University of Hong Kong.

"At certain levels and amongst certain groups within the government and within organizations that are able to shape government policy, there's been an understanding for some time that a discontented and non-paid or underpaid portion of the workforce represents a certain threat to stability," says Professor Frost.

There have been a number of protests in recent months by workers who allege they have not been paid, some for as long as 10 years.

China's laws require workers to be paid their wages and guarantee minimum compensation. However, analysts say migrants often are illiterate and not aware of their rights.

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