Wall Street Journal: China Labor Strife Rises; Death of a Foreman

06 February 2015

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

Feb. 5, 2015

BEIJING—A construction foreman’s death in a labor dispute last week has highlighted a rise in such conflicts across China as migrant workers seek their wages before heading home for the Lunar New Year.

There has been a particular uptick in tensions in the property and construction sectors, which have been reeling from a slump in housing prices, according to labor activists and researchers.

Li Hangui, a 38-year-old native of southern Guangxi province, and a colleague were visiting a work site in the southern city of Nanning for a meeting last week over a wage dispute between a contractor and about 100 workers.

Just minutes into the meeting, the contractor turned violent, according to Mr. Li’s colleague, shouting at the two foremen and assaulting them with chairs. The foremen tried to flee but Mr. Li was surrounded by half a dozen men.

“Don’t let him leave,” the contractor shouted, according to the colleague. “I want him killed.”

In the ensuing melee, an unidentified attacker wounded Mr. Li in the head and chest with a knife, according to the other foreman, who escaped relatively unscathed. Mr. Li died on the way to a hospital, his brothers and fellow foreman said.

Mr. Li’s fate was first reported this week by Southern Metropolis Daily, a commercial Guangzhou newspaper known for pushing boundaries and sometimes reporting on matters not found in other Chinese media.

The death marked a tragic turn in one of thousands of wage-related labor disputes playing out across China in recent weeks.

As the Lunar New Year festivities approach, many workers press their employers for accumulated wages before going back to their home villages—making this a peak period for labor disputes.

Construction workers have had an especially difficult time collecting their wages this year, activists and analysts say, as property developers struggle to offload housing stock and raise fresh capital.

Growing labor tensions in the building sector were a factor behind a nationwide spike in labor protests last year, according to China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit group that promotes labor rights on the mainland. It said the trend has intensified in the last few months.

The construction industry accounted for 31% percent of the 569 labor protests tracked by the group from October to December, trailing the manufacturing sector, which accounted for 36%.

Last week, dozens of construction workers in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, blocked traffic on a main road as they sought what they said were unpaid wages from a local developer, witnesses said.

Workers on a major thoroughfare near the offices of Zhong Hao Commercial Group Co. held up banners demanding unpaid wages that they said they had earned with “blood and sweat,” according to workers and witnesses. The workers distributed images of the incident on social media.

One of the workers, who identified herself only as Liu, said she and roughly 10 other workers under her charge were owed four months’ wages, or more than 100,000 yuan (around $16,000) in total.

“At first we didn’t press for the money as they kept telling us that the payments would come soon, next week or next month,” she said. But as New Year approached, we felt we had to take more drastic action, otherwise our money may never come.”

“We’re protesting only because we’ve got no other choice,” said Ms. Liu, a 29-year-old Chongqing native.

Zhong Hao didn’t respond to a faxed request for comment.

Some disputes are resolved peacefully while many simply drag on. Others, however, have turned violent with employers and aggrieved workers coming to blows.

In Mr. Li’s case, his fellow foreman, Lin Qinghua, said the two believed the contractor—who works for a subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed Logan Property Holdings Co. —owed them and about 100 workers under their charge roughly 900,000 Chinese yuan. He said the contractor believed he should only pay about 630,000 yuan.

A local police official in Nanning said investigations into Mr. Li’s death continue, but didn’t elaborate. It wasn’t clear whether anybody involved in the incident had been detained. The contractor couldn’t be reached for comment.

A spokeswoman for Logan Property said the company is looking into the alleged dispute that led to Mr. Li’s death. She declined to comment further. A spokeswoman for the Logan subsidiary involved said the incident arose from a dispute over project fees.

Guangdong province, China’s southern manufacturing hub, “continued to be the epicenter of worker activism in China,” with 20% of all incidents in the latest quarter, China Labour Bulletin said. But it said protests in several other provinces, such as Jiangsu, Shandong and Henan, had increased sharply.

The official Xinhua News Agency said in a recent report that smaller cities in China’s western and central regions have become the new “ground zero” of wage-related labor unrest, as migrant workers have followed moves by businesses and manufacturers toward these areas.

“Project-approval and wage-insurance schemes in these small- and medium-size cities are less developed compared to larger cities, so wage-arrear disputes have also abruptly increased,” the Xinhua report said.

It isn’t clear how widespread the problem of wage arrears is among China’s 270 million migrant workers.

According to a 2014 study by the state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, roughly 8% of more than 2,000 migrant workers surveyed said they had been owed wages in the year since July 2013. Among them, about 4.3% of respondents said they took part in “mass incidents” to pursue their pay arrears, the study said.

—Olivia Geng contributed to this article.

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