GUANGZHOU, China—Tang Jianliang, a 34-year-old migrant worker, stood forlornly on a sidewalk outside the construction site where he works in this booming southern city. Cement dust coated his old clothing.
"I haven't been paid in four months," Tang said.
He's not alone. China estimates that millions of migrant workers are owed more than $12 billion in back wages. Simply put, their bosses are cheating them.
A recent survey ordered by the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislative body, found that 7.8 percent of the workers at the 2,000 companies surveyed were owed back pay averaging 2,184 yuan ($273) per person, or more than 3 months' wages.
After decades of focusing on economic growth at the expense of social justice, back pay is just one of many festering social problems that beset China's leaders. Under nominally communist China's no-holds-barred capitalist system, laborers and factory workers are at the bottom of the barrel, prohibited from forming unions and easily bullied or ignored.
Much of the work done by migrants such as Tang, for example erecting the high-rise buildings that give China its modern luster, is dirty and dangerous. Tang's been painting a building that's more than 30 stories tall.
"It is dangerous," he said. "The scaffolding is not well constructed."
Businessmen, sometimes with the consent of local officials, find it fairly easy to deny workers the wages they've earned, and contractors have been accused of hiring gangs of thugs armed with pipes to beat laborers who get too vociferous in demanding back pay.
"Some government officials collude with business owners," said Jing Xiang, the director of the Guangzhou Workers' Service Center, a nonprofit social service group. "Some workers tell me that their bosses say to them: `I have money and I have connections. If you report me, I'm not afraid.'"
Migrant workers such as Tang have few advocates, and their anxiety has led to some desperate acts. Unpaid work teams have threatened to leap from tall buildings, and workers have stabbed business owners.
Last year, when Wang Binyu, a migrant construction worker, killed four people in a rage over unpaid wages, the murders in the Ningxia autonomous region evoked widespread sympathy across China. A court gave Wang the death sentence, and he was executed on Oct. 19.
China's laws on minimum wages, workplace safety and workers' rights are often world-class. But in practice, they're often treated as suggestions.
"We know that many workers are walking around being owed a year or two years' wages. It is not uncommon at all," said Robin Munro, research director for the China Labour Bulletin, a private Hong Kong-based watchdog group.
China has between 90 million and 140 million migrant workers in a workforce of 737 million people, and migrants compete for even menial jobs and accept oral promises of wages. Two-thirds of business owners offer no written contracts, even though the law requires them, making it almost impossible for migrant workers to seek redress.
The failure to pay laborers is most common in construction. Migrants form work squads and travel to job sites, only to find that they're given shacks to live in and food but little or no pay. Unpaid wages are also a problem in factories and restaurants.
The problem of unpaid wages is particularly acute at this time of year, the eve of China's most important annual holiday, the lunar New Year festival. Most migrants hope to return to their villages for the holiday, which this year is Jan. 28-Feb. 4.
Tang, the Hunan migrant, said he'd hang his head low if he returns home this holiday. Without back pay, he can't afford presents or gifts of money for his relatives.
"How can I go home without the money?" Tang asked.
Some factory and construction bosses withhold wages before the holiday, saying it's the only way to ensure that the workers return.
At another job site, construction worker Huang Yuancheng, 44, simmered.
"The foreman said, `I didn't get money from my boss, so I can't pay you,'" Huang explained.
Violence is common on job sites. Jing, the Guangzhou labor activist, said he tried last fall to dissuade a worker at a leather goods factory from seeking revenge for his unpaid wages.
"He hated his boss so much because he had worked 50 days. But when he went to get paid, the accountant said he owed money" for room and board, Jing said. Days later, the man waited outside the factory gates and stabbed two managers in the arms and back.
Some officials have demanded action at the national level. The vice chairwoman of the standing committee of the NPC, He Luli, said late last year that the state would try to resolve all wage arrears cases "by the end of 2007."
Officials in Shenzhen, the economic powerhouse across from Hong Kong, said Jan. 14 that eight businessmen had been jailed for failing to pay $863,131 in back pay to 1,200 workers. Jail terms may last "up to one month," the China Daily newspaper said.
Advocates for migrant laborers scoffed at the news and said that officials are usually loath to jail entrepreneurs for cheating workers for fear of scaring investors.
"The Shenzhen case is just a show," said Guangzhou civil rights lawyer Tang Jingling. "Delaying the payment of wages is not a criminal offense."
In fact, it's often local and regional governments that have ordered up the lavish showcase building projects where migrant workers get stiffed. Huge new airports and industrial zones enhance regional status, but when governments fail to pay contractors promptly, workers get stiffed.
"No one is out there keeping officials' feet to the fire to see that the law is applied," said Munro, the Hong Kong-based labor advocate. "The whole government policy is so heavily slanted toward the investors these days that they've totally lost sight of social justice."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-BACKPAY
Need to map