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China's Migrant Workers Struggle to Get Paid for the Holidays

As millions of migrant workers in China prepared to head home for the Lunar New Year holidays, many had to struggle to get pay long owed them. Chinese officials have promised to improve the plight of migrant workers, who are owed billions of dollars in wages. But workers say they have gotten little help.

Train stations across China are swamped by migrant workers in the weeks surrounding the Lunar New Year holiday. Some workers squeezed onto packed trains loaded with food and gifts to take to their families in the countryside. But others were not so lucky.

Many migrant laborers, especially those working in China's booming construction industry, have trouble getting paid before the holiday. Since most of them receive just one payment a year, the postponement or cancellation of their annual payout is devastating.

China has more than 100 million migrant laborers, and most of them do construction work.

Building contractors often leave a work site after construction is complete, but before paying their workers. Others run into cash shortages and promise payment later.

For the workers chatting at this migrants' center in Beijing, there is a large gap between the lofty promises of government officials to make sure they get paid and the reality of their lives.

The problem has become hard for Beijing officials to ignore. The government itself has handed out four billion dollars in wages for migrant workers this year, and is now trying to force contractors to repay the national treasury.

Cabinet ministers have pledged to create a series of programs to protect migrants - making sure they get paid, that their wages are fair and they are protected from workplace injuries.

Guangdong, China's most prosperous province and a common destination for migrant workers, reportedly is taking extra steps to address the problem. Government-owned news media say employers who fail to pay wages will be prosecuted.

Despite those promises, Zhang Zhi Qiang, an advocate for the migrants, says that many employers take advantage of the fact that workers want to go home for the New Year.

For example, Mr. Zhang explains, if a worker is owed 10,000 yuan ($1,200) there is little he can do if the contractor does not pay him. The contractor might beat him down to eight, six or even five thousand yuan, because he knows the worker just wants to return home.

The worker might accept just his travel fees for the moment, because after a year of hard work he only cares about returning home.

Xiao Wang, an 18-year-old migrant from Hebei province, is still waiting to be paid for several months' construction work that he did last year.

Mr. Xiao says he understands now that his previous employers just did not want to pay the workers. He and his co-workers are still trying to figure out how to get their money, since they did not sign a contract for the work.

The young worker has found a new job at a Beijing hospital. He makes five hundred yuan a month as a repairman, much less than his old construction job. However, he gets paid weekly and that makes him much happier.

Mr. Xiao's older colleague, Mr. Peng works in the hospital warehouse and says he is grateful for a stable job.

Mr. Peng says he considers himself well off compared with construction workers because he gets paid more frequently and does not have to work long shifts.

But the migrants' advocate Mr. Zhang, says such satisfied workers are rare. He warns the thousands of unpaid migrant workers could become a social problem in the cities.

Mr. Zhang says the Beijing government must work quickly to improve the lives of the city's migrant workers, since they perform the dirtiest and most tiring jobs for the lowest wages.

He says the government's plans to pay overdue wages to migrants has had mixed results and does not go far enough to protect the workers. For real change, he says, the central government must carry through on its promises to set up a social safety net for all migrant laborers.