Safety first or wages first - A construction site dilemma

08 January 2010

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake tragically exposed the poor quality building materials used in the construction of schools and other buildings in Wenchuan county. The scandal caused a national outrage but had little effect on China’s building contractors, many of whom still use substandard materials in a bid to cut costs. Most recently, a bridge in Shanghai ruptured less than a year after contractors used building rubble rather than concrete during a renovation project, and, on 31 December, a bridge at Kunming’s new airport collapsed killing seven workers and injuring 34 others.

In April 2009, CLB Director Han Dongfang talked to a sub-contractor who had worked on a building project in Suileng county, Heilongjiang, back in 2007. The subcontractor knew the contractor had used cheap cement but rather than report the hazard to the authorities, he used the evidence to blackmail the contractor into paying the wages his workers were owed.

The case illustrates the moral and financial bind that many of the lower-level subcontractors who organize labour for construction sites find themselves in. When the contractor has a cash flow problem, as they nearly always do, the subcontractors are not paid, leaving their workers out in the cold. Moreover, the subcontractors very often do not have a written contract with the contractor and so have little or no legal recourse. Their only option is to petition the local authorities or, sometimes, take more extreme or direct action to ensure payment.

In July 2007, Su Bocheng, a subcontractor with 30 years’ experience in the building trade, hired about 60 bricklayers, tilers and carpenters to work on a project at the Suileng county electrical substation, near the city of Suihua, north of Harbin. The four-month project, commissioned and financed by the County Electric Power Bureau with a total budget of 130,000 yuan, involved both new building and the refurbishment of existing facilities. The workers were repeatedly laid-up during the early stages of the project due to materials shortages, and then in the second half of the project, when additional works were carried out, the money dried up. As Su explained:

Before we started the project, I had the workers’ housing built. I was not paid for that. Later, there was wall-painting, boarding and insulation work to be done. Initially, I was told it was not needed, and then they changed their minds. We painted, and I paid the workers, out of my own pocket. The subcontracting manager did not pay me. We also had to deepen the foundations, and I had to get them to work quite a bit more for that. The cost of these extra projects was over 44,000 yuan. The subcontracting manager was paid by the power bureau, but he did not pay me.

Seeking redress

When the project ended in October, Su had to sign IOUs for his workers. In an attempt to get the 44,000 yuan owed him, Su posted his complaints on the Internet, and then sought arbitration in Suileng county. “We had no joy at the county level,” he explained, “the electric power bureau is a law unto itself and beyond the remit of county-level authorities. Even the county-level Party committee said it could not help. So we had no choice but to take things to the Suihua city labour authorities.”

Initially, Su said, the attitude of municipal authorities was helpful:

They said we could get the money back easily. They confirmed with the County Electric Power Bureau by phone that 50,000 yuan was available, including a fine. But then there was another call, and after that, their tone changed. They wanted an itemized list for each missing payment and a signature from the subcontracting manager, acknowledging the arrears. I said, if he were to agree to sign, then he would have already agreed to pay me. Failing that, they said, I could get the foreman’s signature. But, I told them, the subcontracting manager and the foreman are in cahoots, so the thing was impossible from the first, right?

Su guessed that the subcontracting manager had used his political influence to change the arbiters’ stance. “His father is one of the municipal Party leaders,” Su explained.

Much of the difficulty faced by Su on this project was due to the fact that all arrangements were verbal. No contract was signed covering either subcontracting or worker-hiring terms, and so there were no provisions on pay standards, quality control or payment in the event of works extension. “We did raise this. I pushed him for a contract,” Su said. “If it comes to litigation, isn’t that a good thing to have? I pushed him over this, but he always said, ‘let’s wait till after the job is done.’ But no contract was ever signed.”

Whistle blowing

Su said he decided not to sue the manager for failure to sign a contract because it would have taken too long and the workers did not want to wait. The only way Su was able to persuade the subcontracting manager to pay up was by threatening to expose illegal jerry-building and cost-cutting throughout the project, which had left the building they had worked on at risk of collapse.

“Since the Wenchuan earthquake,”Su said, “the government has been monitoring the construction industry very closely. The part that I was responsible for was not up to standard. I said that if it was struck by lightning, the building could collapse.” The problem lay in the type of cement used. “We should have used type 450, but what we got was type 350.” The problem affected the flooring and beams. “Solidification throughout was not good. But it had nothing to do with us operatives. The subcontracting manager told us what to use through his foreman, and if you want to earn your bread with him, you don’t argue. But I did discuss this problem of inadequate cement with them.”

Su telephoned the subcontracting manager and threatened him, saying that he knew which parts of the project did not meet quality standards. “‘If you do not pay me,’ I said, ‘I will blow the whistle, and you will lose tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of yuan.’” Eventually, the subcontracting manager called Su back and told him to come and get the money. The manager however only offered 30,000 yuan. “At the beginning, I thought 30,000 yuan was too little. He said, as a matter of face he would give me another 2,000 yuan, and so I agreed and went to get it. I dealt with his foreman and another guy in materials, not him. I took the money from the hands of the guy in materials.”

When Su tried to get the outstanding 12,000 yuan from the subcontracting manager, he was told, “Forget it! That is all you’re getting.” After that, Su said he had to let the matter drop.

Future risks

However Su said he was still considering reporting the quality problems to the electric power bureau because of the potential risks to future users of the building. “If they believe me, all well and good, and if they don’t, so be it ... I have recorded conversations on my phone, about the cement used for the beams. I will give the recording to the management of the Bureau. I don’t want people to think I’m just talking rubbish.”

Han advised him however to hold the audio recordings back for the moment, because of the possible legal implications for himself and the difficulty of taking on a corrupt system single-handed.

It was not only the future users of the building that were at risk. Despite the quality problems that plagued the project, Su admitted that he had not arranged injury insurance for the workers, “because the project was just a small two-storey building, not a high-rise.” Han countered that you could get injured just by building a chicken coop. Su agreed and said that on his next project he would ensure that all workers had adequate insurance.
Han Dongfang’s interview with Su Bocheng was broadcast in three episodes in April 2009. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go to the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links.

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