Time for China to criminalize the willful non-payment of wages

13 January 2011
It is wage arrears season again in China. Government and trade union officials are desperately running around trying to ensure that as many migrant workers as possible get at least some of the wages owed to them before the traditional lunar New Year holiday.

It seems that the ability to recover wage arrears prior to the holidays has emerged as a key performance indicator for local governments in China, and officials all over the country are already announcing their success rates in the domestic media. In the northwestern region of Ningxia, for example, it was none other than the governor, Wang Zhengwei, who announced that his region had recovered 87.6 million yuan in back pay for 20,103 migrant workers. In Hohhot, the regional capital of Inner Mongolia, the authorities stated that the labour department had got back some 22.7 million yuan in wage arrears for 1,827 migrant workers in the city.

The irony of local officials proudly announcing the extent of the wage arrears problem within their own jurisdiction appears to be lost on them. Instead of boasting how they have recovered so many millions of yuan in back pay, right at the last minute, they should be ashamed of the fact that they allowed such huge arrears to build up over the entire year. Despite decades of highly publicized wage arrears accumulation, local authorities in China still seem incapable of ensuring that bosses pay wages to their employees in full and on time every month.

And the law does not seem to be much help either. Workers can of course apply for mediation or arbitration in wage arrears cases. They can even take the boss to court – and many do. However, as the commentator Su Dahe noted last week, bosses can just delay and delay, appealing rulings and playing for time until the workers either give up or settle for a fraction of what they are owed.

In a column for the Southern Metropolis Daily, entitled “If I were the boss, I would withhold wages too” (如果我是老板也会欠薪), Su said at present there was no pressure at all on employers that would force them to pay up:

It should be clear by now that unless the law is perfected in this regard, and the system really gets into gear, if I were the boss, I would withhold wages too. Working for money is, I admit, an undeniable right, but it is my money you are working for. Do you think I will give you my money without a fight? If you curse me for not having a conscience, I will not deny it, and what’s more, I will not care. In this society, if you have money you are the Daddy. So what if you don’t have a conscience.

Given the current social climate, and lack of law enforcement in China, Su stressed, the only way to make employers pay up was to use society’s “last line of defense” and criminalize the willful non-payment of wages, as is the case in Hong Kong where the offence carries a maximum prison term of three years and a fine of HK$350,000.

China Labour Bulletin’s Director, Han Dongfang, agreed that was necessary to penalize employers because, he pointed out: “This is more than just the failure to honour a contract. Wages are a livelihood issue. If you don’t get paid, you can’t live.”

This is especially true for factory workers and employees in the service industry who are on the minimum wage. Even with the recent increases in the minimum wage across China, nearly all of their salary still goes towards daily necessities such as food, accommodation, transport and telecommunications. If they don’t get paid on time, they will need to rely on friends and family members for help or even have to borrow money just to eat.

It seems entirely reasonable that employers who endanger the health and livelihood of their employees, and their employees’ families, by deliberately withholding wages should be subject to criminal prosecution. But, for the Chinese government, it is not simply an issue of justice. Social stability is just as important. This is precisely why the local authorities are now putting pressure on construction companies, factory bosses and labour contractors to pay up. The last thing the government wants to see are large groups of angry migrant workers staging protests and demonstrations in front of their government offices just before the New Year - such as this protest in Zunhua, east of Beijing on 10 January.

However, the authorities should also consider the fact that if they do not criminalize the non-payment wages, there is a danger that they will become criminal cases anyway, as was tragically illustrated last month when a 17-year-old worker stabbed his employer to death in a dispute over wages. The young worker, surnamed Wang, had been employed for two months at a small factory in the northeastern city of Jilin. He had been promised a salary of 500 yuan a month but had only been paid 300 yuan for two months’ work. He made repeated demands for the wages due to him but was always rebuffed by the boss. One evening, he confronted the boss again, this time with a knife, and reportedly stabbed him repeatedly when he refused to pay.

If he is lucky, Wang will get a suspended death sentence. But whatever the result of the trial, a young life has already been ruined and a family devastated simply because the boss believed he had the right to pay his employees wages as and when he liked, regardless of the law.

Until the government takes tougher, systematic and permanent measures to ensure that employers are accountable to the law, and that employee wages are paid in full and on time, workers will continue to get angry and frustrated, and more tragedies will result.
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