The Labour Contract Law, implemented on 1 January 2008, mandates that all workers should have a written contract with their employer detailing the terms and conditions of their employment. However, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, in first year of the law’s enactment, more than 15 million Chinese workers had not signed a labour contract.
These included 15 rural migrant workers from Xiaogan, about 50 kilometres northwest of Wuhan who took on a job in the city’s Hanyang district erecting a marquee as a temporary storage area for a kitchen supply company. The lack of a valid employment contract and other documentation left them in an extremely vulnerable position, and after one of the workers was injured on the job the contractor agreed to pay the injured man compensation but withheld the estimated 24,500 yuan in wages owed to the other workers.
In January 2009, CLB director Han Dongfang talked to Li Wanzu, the worker who negotiated the job with the contractor about his long uphill struggle to get any wages for his men and the reluctance of the local labour bureau to get involved.
On December 26, 2007, Li Wanzu and 14 other workers began work on a commission for the Hengxin Tent Company to erect a marquee for the nationally-known Subo’er Kitchen Appliance Company as temporary storage for its goods. The workers had a “verbal agreement” with Hengxin for about 100 yuan a day each, an agreement largely based on trust and the fact that Li was “well acquainted” with the company owner.
The marquee was very large, “about 24 metres wide, 80 metres long, and 10 or 11 metres high,” said Li, and it took the 15 workers 23 days, or “245 man-days, including overtime,” to complete the job. They were managed by a “cooperative partner,” a mutual acquaintance who had found them the job, while Li acted as the “lead worker.” Li would get a commission for bringing the workers from his home town and would be responsible for distributing the pay to his colleagues but basically he said: “I was like the other workers, to be paid for each day I worked.” Li keep a daily log of the days worked. “I have all of the original records,” he said.
However, before Li could collect the wages, disaster struck. “There was a big snowstorm in Wuhan last year!” said Li. “It collapsed the tent…when we went to collect our wages, the contractor asked us to take down the tent. I said, pay us our wages, and then we’ll take it down for you. But there was nothing we could do; he would only give us an IOU for 8,000 yuan. When we asked him for the full wages he owed us, he would not give them to us, only the 8,000-yuan IOU…he said, I will give it all to you after you are finished dismantling the tent.”
“We had no choice,” said Li, “We thought, we’ve already finished putting it up, and taking it down will take one to three days, we will take it down for 100 yuan a day, and then we can collect our wages. What we didn’t anticipate was that, during the process of taking it down, an accident would happen that injured one of our workers…a scaffold fell down, because it was very cold; the ground was covered in ice and snow,” Li said. One worker suffered fairly serious injuries, including “broken bones in his hand and hip,” Li explained. Li himself suffered a fractured toe.
The company refused any compensation at first but after talk of a lawsuit surfaced, it agreed to settle the matter privately and paid about 20,000 yuan in medical expenses. Later, in May 2008, the company paid the worker an additional 24,000 yuan for lost work time.
“The situation with the injured worker is all taken care of,” Li said; “that situation is no longer a problem. Now with the wages, the contractor is now saying that I was a subcontractor in this matter and I should share half the responsibility. He wants me to take on more than 20,000 yuan of the 40,000 yuan” in medical compensation. Li insisted however, “I was a lead worker…I worked for daily wages. He did not contract this matter out to me to earn money.” No profit for Li was built into the arrangement, only the small fee he would get for bringing the workers together and managing them.
Li acknowledged that, after the accident, the workers did not complete the dismantling of the tent. Since his own toe was broken, he could not work, and “with no one to lead the workers, they didn’t want to work, and the company wasn’t paying wages, so the workers didn’t want to work and they stopped,” Li explained. Subo’er’s goods “were not harmed at all,” said Li, other than getting a bit wet, and the goods had all been moved out. Someone else was hired to complete the dismantling and rebuilding of the tent.
The workers appealed to the local Labour Bureau “many times,” for their unpaid wages, Li said. At first the Labour Bureau told him that the 8,000-yuan IOU from the company owner did not constitute proof of a labour relationship: “They said we will have nothing to do with your 8,000-yuan IOU. This matter should be handled by the courts.” The reason given, said Li, was that the language of the IOU included the term “installation fee” rather than “wages.”
Li approached the provincial Labour Bureau, which also refused the case because he had “no evidence,” Li said. Then in June, 2008 he “wrote to the provincial government, to the Governor himself, Li Hongzhong,” who sent the matter back down to Wuhan’s municipal Labour Inspection Team, which agreed to review Li’s documents. In October, Li took his documents, including copies of the daily work logs he had kept, to the municipal Labour Inspection Team. But the only document they would recognize was the 8,000-yuan IOU. They then referred the matter down to the city’s Hannan district.
The Hannan District Labour Bureau also told Li that he “had no evidence” and said that his documentation “was not reliable,” because he had written the work log himself and it was not recognized by Hengxin Co. Li acknowledged that the workers themselves had not signed the daily work log. The district bureau did recognize the 8,000-yuan IOU, but, at the time of the interview, even this amount had not been paid out.
“They all said this is a small matter,” Li continued, “no one wants to deal with it; I’ve been pushed from one place to the other…pushed to Hannan, pushed to Hanyang, pushed over to the county, pushed back and forth between these three places.”
Li approached a lawyer about the matter but the lawyer “wanted me to pay 3,000 yuan for him to help me apply for labour arbitration. I didn’t agree to it.” Li went on his own to a labour arbitration centre, who also “asked me what evidence I had of working for the tent company.” They told him there was no proof of a labour relationship.
Li and his coworkers did not seek out the trade union in this matter, because “with us migrant workers, the matter is truly, how to say it, too small…no wonder the bureaus have that saying, ‘Having one less thing to do is better than having one more thing to do.’ They don’t want to deal with it.” Li explained: “If the labour bureaus didn’t want to deal with it, I thought the union would not want to, either.”
At the time of the interview, the Hannan District Labour Bureau, after negotiations, had arranged for Li to get 6,500 of the 8,000 yuan represented on the IOU, telling him that he would have to “take a loss.” That would be “only a few hundred yuan for each worker,” said Li. The bureau also “wants me to take on the expenses of the injured worker…they say I was a subcontractor,” despite the lack of any evidence to prove he was a subcontractor.
But Li feared that if he waited longer than one year, the valid period for legal claims would be over and he would not be able to claim any money at all. “There is nothing I can do now,” said Li, “I must take what I can get… We’ve been running around dealing with this situation for a long time now, for many months, and we’re tired.”
Han Dongfang’s interview with Li Wanzu was broadcast in three episodes in January and February 2009. 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.