Construction workers begin to turn the tables on the boss

08 November 2011
At the end of every year, we see an upsurge in migrant construction workers’ demands for wages in arrears. This year, the credit squeeze has meant the surge has come earlier. In the past week alone, the official Chinese media has reported over eight wage arrears cases, involving over 2,000 workers. Many workers didn’t get their money, worse still; many got badly beaten by thugs hired by their bosses.

Now, a few “clever” migrant workers have started to take advantage of the public sympathy for their plight, and government policies to maintain social stability, in order to extort additional pay from their bosses. In the Pearl River Delta in particular, workers have reportedly looked for excuses to postpone the construction project and then ask their contractor for more than the agreed salary. If the boss did not agree, the workers would cause even greater disruption or go to the local authorities to file a complaint.

A seasoned official at the Guangzhou Construction Administration Committee told the Yangcheng Evening News. “They are highly united; they usually come from the same hometown, and know all the techniques needed to get their wages. Some of them have been involved in more than one wage dispute already.”

Threatening to jump off bridges is one of the most common techniques used by these workers. They know that the evaluation of local officials’ performance is closely linked to the social stability of their jurisdictions, and that officials will act swiftly to resolve any potential unrest. Moreover, officials will usually lean towards workers in wage disputes when there is no concrete evidence to prove either side’s claims.

Some contractors have been forced by the government to pay tens of thousands of yuan more than originally agreed in order to soothe the trouble makers. As a result, the Yangcheng Evening News reported, contractors have begun to exchange lists of trouble makers and now refuse to hire workers from the same region as black-listed workers.

“We are all afraid of this kind of trouble because it not only wastes our money, but also seriously damages our reputation,” said Mr. Lu, a small developer in Guangdong. “Local government officials always order us to resolve these disputes as soon as possible, and we’d be fined by the general contractor if the construction project is postponed, which is even worse. But the workers fear nothing. They enjoy performing these bridging jumping and suicide shows. We can only accept our bad luck and pay up.”

The Guangzhou municipal government is planning to set up a construction workers’ data base and blacklist regular trouble makers. However, Shenzhen has come up with a more constructive response, simply reminding companies to normalize employment contracts with their workers. It is ironic that the practice of not signing formal employment contracts on construction sites, which has benefited bosses for so long, has now come back to haunt them.

And one final thought, if the authorities set up a database for bosses who fail to pay their workers on time it would surely be much larger than any database for migrant workers who try to cheat their boss.
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