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Chinese Migrant Workers Protest Over Unpaid Wages

FILE - Police vehicles block a street of the prefectural seat of Shuangyashan after several days of protest by miners over late wages in northeastern China's Heilongjiang province. Frustration among miners over unpaid wages has swelled to the brink of unrest in the province in China’s far northeast. (AP Photo/Gerry Shih) Police vehicles block a street of the prefectural seat of Shuangyashan after several days of protest by miners over late wages in northeastern China's Heilongjiang province. Frustration among miners over unpaid wages has swelled to the brink of unrest in the province in China’s far northeast.

Millions of workers, who flocked to China’s richer coastal cities for jobs, have begun their annual holiday migration home. But some are not going home. Instead, they have taken to the streets to protest because their employers have yet to pay them for their work.

Disputes over pay around this time of year are not uncommon, but for the first time the problem of overdue payments has grown to include unpaid workers from the so-called new economy, such as those working in e-commerce.

Analysts say this year it is not just those in traditional industries that are pressuring their employers for back wages.

“The old economy has the same old issues. So, construction, everything from the old industries like steel, coal, these older industries still have the same problem with wage arrears,” Keegan Elmer, labor researcher of China Labor Bulletin, told VOA after government officials disclosed the latest development.

“And the newer economy, it turns out, for example, delivery workers in the online, offline markets or new online e-commerce industries, are showing the same issue of wage arrears. So now, the problem [has] even gotten worse in some respect,” the Hong King-based analyst added.

Labor Protests to Surge

The labor organization expects the annual wave of worker protests to spike in the next few weeks. And according to the group’s Strike Map (, unpaid workers have staged more than 2,000 street protests since last February.

Zou Zhanhai and his fellow villagers from Pingquan County of Chengde City in Hebei province are among those who have taken to the streets.

In 2015, 21 of them traveled to Shaanxi province to work on an oil rig project and finished their work around September of that year. But they are still waiting for their final payment of about 530,000 yuan (US$77,274) from their subcontractor employer, Tien Yu Co. The subcontractor could not be reached by VOA for comment.

“We couldn’t get by without this small amount of money, which hasn’t arrived yet. Each of us has to work to support his family of five or six,” Zou spoke to VOA from the capital city of Xi’an, where he and 15 other villagers have staged a protest since late December in front of the oil company’s headquarters.

“The employer now asks us to go home, saying that we will be paid after the Chinese New Year. But we can’t keep taking their word for it. We plan to hold on to our protest unless we’re paid. There’s no other way but to spend the Chinese New Year here,” he added.

Zou said they had petitioned their case to the province’s labor department, public security bureau and the local court, after which the subcontractor agreed to pay them in full before last June, including all expenses incurred during the petitions.

But they still haven’t received their pay. The subcontractor told them it is because of other construction bills the oil company has yet to settle.

Zou said the workers’ priority is to be paid regardless whether the government has increased regulations to safeguard their rights or not.

“New labor regulations are well-intended, but no one from the [local] labor supervision department, public bureau and the courts seems to be able to implement them. The court, which has heard our case for six to seven months, still hasn’t enforced [the recovery of our wage arrears],” Zou added.

Similar Predicament

Zou and his villagers are not the only migrant workers in the same predicament.

Last month alone, China Labor Bulletin found that workers across China had staged more than 130 protests.

On December 1, workers took to the streets in Jining of Shandong province, demanding 7 million yuan (US$1 million) in unpaid wages from a developer. Instead they were beat by police and arrested. Seventeen were later charged with disturbing public order.

Two weeks later, more than 20 migrant workers climbed the Wanda mall complex in Nanning, Guangxi, threatening to jump off the rooftop if they weren’t paid in time for the vacation, according to the labor organization.

Social media attention

Few are optimistic the labor disputes will improve soon, even as they gain increasing attention on social media in China.

On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, one user named Ainixiaoqian wrote: “These enterprises, which have accrued unpaid wages, will eventually go bankrupt. How can they withhold migrant workers’ hard-earned money? So despicable!”

Another user, surnamed Bao, added, “the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security’s inaction is to blame. Any unit, which dares to delay wage payments, should be given heavy fines.”

Regulations and Oversight

China has, in fact, increased regulations and oversight in recent years. Earlier this month, the State Council set a goal to end the country’s wage arrears by 2020.

Some of the increased regulations and oversight include jail terms and fines for company executives who are found malicious in withholding wages, even though many find the maximum fine at 20,000 yuan (US$2,910) not enough.

Local governments have set up contingency funds to help migrant workers weather the time before companies pay the wages.

But the fact that most labor-intensive industries remain heavily dependent on layers of subcontracting has made the labor issue difficult to tackle, according to government officials.

And the current economic downturn has weighed on the survival of businesses, they added.

Workers’ Oversight Mechanism

China Labor Bulletin’s Elmer believes that the government’s approach has proved ineffective.

What could be done instead is to stop the problems before they start by allowing workers to have their own oversight mechanism or taking a participatory role in the management of their employers, he said.

“For example, the regular collective bargaining, which is something we advocate here, gives workers a role and encourages transparency and dialogue with the bosses to make sure that workers know when the companies are having trouble, or there’s some sort of conflict,” Elmer said. “There’s a way to resolve these conflicts before they erupt into dangerous and sometimes violent conflicts.”