It is not uncommon for enterprise bosses to employee thugs to harass, beat up and intimidate workers when they complain about non-payment of wages or harsh working conditions. In January this year, for example, Wang Chao, a migrant construction workers’ representative, had his arm chopped off by hired thugs when seeking wages in arrears for his co-workers.
Migrant workers are the main target of company violence because they are the most vulnerable group in the workforce. Working far from home, and isolated from the local community, they often have little or no protection from exploitative bosses, especially those connected with local officials and or organized crime.
In August 2008, CLB Director Han Dongfang talked a group of migrant workers from Henan who had traveled 700 kilometers to the Shandong coastal city of Rongcheng to work in a kelp processing plant. Putting in 15-hour days in difficult and hazardous working conditions, and denied weekends off and other holidays, they were abused and routinely exploited by management, which excessively docked wages, paid in arrears and in some cases not at all. When the time came to settle the wage bill, the boss hired local gangsters to intimidate and beat up the workers, even threatening to kill anyone who refused to accept the deal on offer.
The need to work away from home
Li Wenyi, a farmer eking a living from just 20 mu of land (one mu is 667 square metres) in Weichuan village, Weishi county, was one of the organizers of this ill-fated venture. He first went to work in the Shandong Peninsula in 2007, accompanied by his wife and daughter. For nine months, they worked at a township collective fish-processing enterprise, each earning over 1,000 yuan a month. The couple were lodged free of charge by the enterprise in their own private room, while their daughter was in a single-sex dormitory room; all they had to pay for was food and drink. “Overall conditions were pretty good,” said Li. The trio went back home with over 30,000 yuan in savings, and positive impressions of their first migrant-labour experience.
Li explained that while farming in Weishi county could cover basic costs, he had to support two sons in further education. “In our district, every household has at least one migrant worker. If you don’t go out to work you have no money to spend, and with inflation today ... you probably don’t know what prices are like around here.”
During his stint on the Shandong Peninsula in 2007, Li was asked by another township enterprise in the local marine-food processing business, Gaojian Food, to bring a group of workers over from Henan the following year to help them out in the kelp season. It was presented as a win-win situation: Li’s home area was suffering a labour surplus, while the Shandong kelp industry is labour-intensive and often short of workers during the harvesting and processing season. Li agreed to try to persuade a group of people from his village to come over the following year. The enterprise offered some sweeteners: for any workers who came, an initial guaranteed minimum wage of 800 yuan a month for women and 900 yuan for men, while they got used to the work, and, for Li personally, 400 yuan per head he recruited.
In February 2008, after Chinese New Year, Li led a group of over 80 fellow villagers and relatives to Gaojian Food’s kelp-processing plant in Lidao, near Roncheng. The problems began almost immediately. The Henan workers were reluctant to take the minimum wage for the stipulated two-month initial period, as it worked out to no more than 30 yuan per worker per day, and wanted this low-pay period shortened. Li negotiated with the factory manager and got a commitment to reduce it to one month - or so he thought. At the end of the first month, pay was withheld, in line with a local “custom,” for two months, so that payment for March was only made in May.
Cheated and exploited
Meanwhile, the workers were struggling just to get used to the work, which many found extremely tiring. Even during the spring period, when the seaweed was being harvested from the ocean and workers on land had an easier time of it, they put in a daily minimum of ten hours. But during May and June when the harvested seaweed was processed, daily hours shot up to a maximum of 15, with shifts lasting from six in the morning to nine in the evening. Because seaweed processing is seasonal and susceptible to weather, it has to be completed as quickly as possible. As a result, the workers were not allowed any days off. They worked seven days a week, and did not even get a break on 1 May, International Labour Day. According to Li, they worked continuously from 17 February to their day of departure in early July. “It’s a really tiring living,” said Li. “People could not take it, but if you knelt down for a breather you got shouted at! The boss bawled at you until the tears came! We were so tired.” The worst was the labour-intensive heat-treatment process, after which the kelp is salted and prepared for cutting into sheets or for food wrapping and other markets. This work was done on two production lines, with 15 people on each, in a single-shift system.
Several workers quit because of the harsh conditions, and after the heat-treatment process was completed, when there was less demand for labour, another 17 workers were let go. The remaining 30 or so were far from satisfied. “We had been promised 45 to 60 yuan per day. I had brought the workers in the first place, so I had done the negotiating. But after the work was over and the factory settled up on 1 July, the most anybody made was 52 yuan a day and only one person got that much.”
The workers were told that some of them had not pulled their weight, and so had not been paid a flat rate, based on total amount of work. It also emerged that the factory manager had simply docked the previously promised minimum wage payment for workers who did not work a full season until October. “His view was that you have to carry on until the end, he thought that if you left of your own free will, you forfeited the minimum wage,” said Li. It also seemed that the boss had applied piece-rate wages instead of the guaranteed minimum if this meant paying out less, and that significant sums (for example 800 yuan for living expenses) had been arbitrarily deducted from wages for various expenses. Li himself was deprived of the 400 yuan he had been promised per worker recruited, on the grounds that he had not kept the deadline. As a result of these deductions and abuses, the final pay-offs received by the workers were pitiful, ranging from 300 yuan to over 1,000 yuan, and two ended up actually owing the plant money, 60 yuan and 179 yuan respectively.
The “final reckoning”
The “final reckoning” took place on first two days of July. The dormitories were locked up, so the workers were left waiting in the rain as the wage calculations continued through the night. “We all huddled together at the entrance to the plant,” Li said, “and no-one got a wink of sleep.” To intimidate the workers further, Li said, the plant management arranged for carloads of local gangsters to come in. Workers had to get into their vehicles to get their money, if they did not, they were left empty-handed.
In this hostile atmosphere, a clash broke out with the factory security guards, who, Li alleged, were told by the manager to rough up the workers “We were supposed to be signing receipts for our money at the office, but they were refusing to do the calculations, saying that that some people had not shown the right “quality” and they wanted us to leave the office. The security guys began shouting, and as we went away, they began hitting somebody, a 16-year old boy called Liu Eryang. When this happened, our people all got up, but I told them not to retaliate because one of the security people, a guy called Song, produced a knife. Then one of us, a 22-year-old female worker, Wang Ruihong, got down on her knees to pacify him. But he did not lower the weapon.”
At one point, the boss Li Yongtao, yelled out: “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him and bury him here! Make sure that not one of them gets out of here, forget about their wages. Don’t be afraid they’ll go to court! Just let them go to court. Don’t worry about the Labour Bureau, they are all my friends, and failing that we have the provincial governor on our side.” To underline the point, he brandished a protective amulet (hushenfu 护身符).
The workers tried to stay calm and called the police. “After the police came, everybody cooled down a bit,” Li said. “But all they did was tell us we should not have come here in the first place because it was not a good place to earn money.” The factory people denied that the security guards had attacked anybody. In the end, it was agreed to complete the settling of accounts the following morning.
As the calculations continued, several women workers knelt on the office floor, pleading with the boss not to make deductions, to add a little extra. After working for several months, some female workers were being offered little more than 300 yuan. Their pleas were ignored, Li said. All in all, based on days worked, unpaid overtime and missed days-off and holidays, the workers calculated they were owed a total of 230,000 yuan.
No one to turn to
Asked by Han whether he had thought of turning to the union, Li said: “There are no trade unions where we were. We could have gone to Rongcheng, but we were unfamiliar with the area, so we did not. Also, we were afraid, what with all these gangsters around.”
Han asked Li if he was aware of his rights under the Trade Union Law to elect representatives, negotiate collectively with employers and establish collective contracts. “We just signed individual contracts, and they said, even if we do negotiate a little with you, if you do not sign the contract, there will be no wages!”
Another victim was one of the workers leaders Zhao Jianwen. After working at the plant for one month, he was hit by a tractor inside the workshop. He told Han; “I asked them to get me treated, but they would not pay. I could not work, and had no money either, so I had no choice in the end but go home, after spending 100 yuan of my own money. They simply avoided responsibility.”
At home, Zhao spent over 1,000 yuan on treatment, having been diagnosed with injuries to his kidney area. “I was basically able to cover all my own costs from my pocket, but they did not pay a penny,” he said. “I demanded money from them, but they said I had gone home, run away.” Eventually, the factory told him to come back, which Zhao did. He went to the Labour Bureau in Rongcheng, and was given 900 yuan “to serve as wages.” But Zhao got nothing for his medical costs. The Labour Bureau merely said it was the responsibility of the factory.
Han Dongfang’s interviews with Li Wenyi and Zhao Jianwen were broadcast in eight episodes in August and September. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links.