Getting Paid in China: Matter of Life and Death

Article in the Washington Post on Migrant Workers

Suicide Threats Rise as Employers Deny Wages

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 13, 2003; Page A16

GUANGZHOU, China -- Yao Xinde sat dazed on the roof of the student dormitory he helped build, gazing into the dark sky with his legs dangling over the edge of the 10-story building. It was a cold night, and he shivered as the wind cut through his thin black jacket. On the ground below, a large crowd gathered to see if he would jump.

For six frustrating months, Yao had been trying to get one of this southern Chinese city's largest and best-connected construction firms to pay him and his crew of 80 workers for fitting the interior of the peach-tiled dorm. Now, the 40-year-old foreman and a colleague were threatening to throw themselves off the building if they didn't get their money.

Police arrived quickly, followed by ambulances and emergency workers who unfolded a large net, witnesses said. Two tense hours later, officers accompanied one of the firm's managers to the roof with a package of cash wrapped in newsprint. Police passed the money to Yao and his friend, then pulled them to safety.

"There was no other way to get what the company owed us," Yao explained a few weeks later, chain-smoking during an interview in his cramped, run-down apartment as his young son dozed nearby. "At the time, I was so exhausted and numb, I was really ready to die."

Suicide threats by workers seeking to collect unpaid wages have become increasingly common in many parts of China, a telling sign of the frustrations felt by the nation's working class as the ruling Communist Party presses ahead with efforts to build a market economy while limiting political reform.

The phenomenon is concentrated largely among the nearly 200 million workers who have left China's impoverished countryside for jobs in the cities, where they are treated as second-class citizens. And it is most pronounced in the winter weeks before the Lunar New Year, when these laborers collect their earnings and migrate en masse to their villages.

In the run-up to the holiday this year -- it began Feb. 1 -- local Chinese newspapers carried several reports about workers "treating their lives lightly" in disputes over wage arrears, sometimes with photos of men perched precariously on towering construction cranes. In central Hubei province, one worker spent six hours threatening to leap from a crane before getting his money. In eastern Shandong province, another set himself on fire.

Because most such incidents go unreported by China's state-run media, it is difficult to say how often they occur or how most are resolved. But one Chinese labor researcher who has studied the subject estimates that at least 100 migrant workers, most in construction, threaten to kill themselves over unpaid wages each year in just the Pearl River Delta, the manufacturing region that includes this booming city 75 miles northwest of Hong Kong.

These suicide threats are acts of desperation as much as depression, made by men and women who have concluded -- with good reason -- that China's courts, trade unions and government agencies are unable or unwilling to help them. These institutions are underfunded and understaffed, and often controlled by party officials who have close ties with local employers.

"These workers know the official channels don't work well," said the labor researcher, who asked not to be identified. "But as soon as they threaten to jump, they get attention. And in many cases, they get some money."

The problem is serious enough that police in many Chinese cities have adopted a policy of jailing for up to two weeks workers who threaten to commit suicide, regardless of whether their labor grievances are justified.

The central government has also acknowledged the difficulties that migrant workers face, and last month ordered localities to step up efforts to protect workers' rights and ensure that employers pay wages on time. But it is unclear whether local officials who depend on these businesses for taxes and bribes will respond.

A survey published recently by the official New China News Agency found that nearly three in four migrant workers have trouble collecting their pay. A majority of those polled said begging from, bargaining with or intimidating their employers were the best ways to get their money, while barely a quarter considered seeking help from the government and less than 2 percent said going to court was a good option.

Like most workers in China's corrupt and poorly regulated construction industry, Yao and his crew were not given formal contracts when the Huangpu No. 2 Construction Co. hired them for the dormitory project, and they were to be paid only after the building was finished. But because there is fierce competition for jobs, they agreed to the conditions.

For nearly two months last spring and summer, Yao and his crew labored to meet the developer's strict deadlines, working seven days a week and more than 18 hours a day. But when the building was finished in June, they didn't get paid.

Other crews at the site had the same problem. "We worked day and night to finish the project on time," said a crew foreman, who asked to be identified by only his surname, Xiong. "All of us were exhausted. But what did we get? Nothing!"

The company owed Yao's crew about $10,000, and Xiong's crew of 140 men about $25,000, the workers said.

Yao, a thin, sinewy man who first left his impoverished village in Sichuan province in search of construction jobs at age 13, said he exhausted other options before climbing to the roof of the dormitory at Guangzhou's Technical Institute of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce. Week after week, Yao visited the developer's offices and demanded payment. At first, managers told him the money was coming, but they needed to make deductions for materials and other costs, he said. Months later, they told him they weren't going to pay his crew anything because the deductions exceeded their salaries.

Foremen such as Yao and Xiong were caught in the middle because they were responsible for distributing wages to the workers. Angry and suspicious workers often showed up at their homes, demanding that they be paid and sometimes threatening violence, they said.

Yao and Xiong said they tried getting help from the city labor department. They were transferred from office to office, and never received a response to their complaint. They were also told it would be difficult to prove their case because they did not have written contracts.

The men also considered going to court. But Yao had sued three different employers for back wages over the past decade, and each case had dragged on so long that he ended up losing money even when he won the judgments. "We can't win in court, because the bosses have the money and the power," he said. "We're just ordinary workers. We don't have human rights."

Yao said he tried intimidating the company into paying him, leading his workers in rowdy protests in the firm's office. But that didn't work either.

As the Lunar New Year approached, pressure from the workers intensified.

Then, on Jan. 2, Yao learned his ex-wife had died, and he made plans to return home to settle her affairs. He called the construction firm, and managers agreed to see him and Xiong on Jan. 4.

The meeting did not go well. "They told us they didn't have any money," Xiong said. "Finally, Yao said to them, 'You're pushing us to jump from the building, is that what you want us to do?' And the deputy manager said, 'Go ahead and jump! Go!' "

Yao had read about workers threatening to kill themselves over unpaid wages, but only then did he understand how they felt. "After I left the office, I decided to die. I didn't see any other way," he recalled. "Too many workers were asking me for money, and I didn't know where to get it. I didn't know if my family was safe. But if I died, the workers couldn't come after me anymore."

Yao and Xiong climbed the stairs to the roof of the dormitory. They wept as they called friends and relatives on their mobile phones to say goodbye.

Yao said he told friends to avenge his death by murdering the construction firm's boss and his family. They tried to persuade him to come down. He refused. "If they didn't give me the money, I was going to jump," he said. "Then the company would be punished. Its reputation would be ruined, and it would lose contracts."

Sitting on the roof about 30 yards away, Xiong was thinking about his family: his wife, an 8-year-old daughter, a 5-year-old son, and his aging parents. "I was worried no one would take care of them if I died," he said.

But he, too, was determined to follow through. "We had tried everything, but no one would help us. That made us very desperate," he said. "I thought we had no choice but to choose to die."

Even after the company agreed to pay them, they said, it took a while for police to convince them it was not a trick, that they were safe and had finally won.

Reached by telephone, an official at Huangpu denied withholding wages from Yao and Xiong. "The matter is already resolved," said Chen Haiyang, project manager for the dorm. "Those workers who tried to jump from the building were out of their minds. They made trouble out of nothing."

"They got their money back, of course," he added. "We even gave them more than they deserved."

Researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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