Workers left without a cent as developer and construction company feud

24 November 2009

The non-payment of wages to construction workers in China has been such a widespread problem for so long that many city governments insist that construction companies deposit a percentage of their project funds in a separate bank account to ensure that the workers do get paid. Other local governments put pressure on construction companies to pay up, especially around the Chinese New Year holiday. However, when the city government itself is delinquent in its payments to the construction company, there is a limit to pressure it can exert.

In March 2009, CLB Director Han Dongfang talked to a construction worker from the northeastern city of Anshan who organized about one hundred colleagues to work on a retail and residential complex in the city in 2006-07. More than a year after the project was completed, Tang Liyong and his colleagues had still not been paid. They are collectively owed more than 600,000 yuan.

The construction company, Sanye Southern, admits to owing the workers the money but refuses to pay because allegedly the project developer and the local government still owe it money. At the time of the interview, the project developer was in a litigation battle with Sanye over unpaid construction funds. Sanye claimed the developer had yet to pay it for the construction work it had completed.

Tang said that many of the hundred or so of his men employed on the project doing carpentry, reinforcing steel bars, plumbing etc, came from as far away as Jiangsu, more than 1,000 kilometres away by train. They all had to return home empty handed, leaving Tang to try and recover the money on their behalf.

“We have been to Sanye. We have also been to the labour bureaus in Tai’an county and Anshan municipality. We have also been to the county government. They all just pushed the matter away. The county labour bureau said that workers were not under its jurisdiction; this matter was under the jurisdiction of the Anshan municipal labour bureau. And the municipal bureau said it was under the jurisdiction of the county bureau.”

“The municipal government said Sanye should pay up, that it should give the construction funds to the workers. But Sanye responded by saying that not even the mayor of Anshan can do anything to them. The municipal government owes money to Sanye, the municipal government must first give money to Sanye, and then Sanye will pay the workers their wages.”

The workers also approached the Tai’an federation of trade unions but Tang said the union was “no use at all.”

The workers were hampered in their struggle by the fact that the only contract signed was the one between Tang and Sanye, the individual workers did not sign employment contracts with Sanye. The local labour dispute arbitration committee, for example, demanded verification materials to prove their employment but all Tang had was an IOU from Sanye.

“The IOU is stamped with Sanye's official seal,” Tang said, “but still they won’t pay up.”

During the construction period, Tang said, the workers were given a little money by the company, just enough to cover their living expenses, but only after they staged an eight day strike to demand their wages. Prior to the strike, he said, the workers had received nothing at all.

Tang has not worked since the end of the project and has spent nearly all his time trying to recover the wages in arrears.

Han Dongfang’s interview with Tang Liyong was broadcast in two episodes in March and April 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.

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