The problem of unpaid wages in the Chinese construction industry has been endemic for decades. And even though many local governments have now taken remedial measures to ensure that workers do eventually get paid, some disputes have dragged on for years. In many cases, workers simply write off their losses and hope for better next time, but some determined individuals take a stand, and fight for what they are owed, even at considerable cost to themselves.
In April 2004, Peng Yingquan, a labour contractor from Yichang in Hubei, hired 160 workers to build a 30-kilometre section of road in Wufeng county. One year later, the project was completed, but less than five million yuan of the seven million yuan in project costs was paid out. The Wufeng county road authorities refused to pay the remaining two million yuan, including 1.14 million yuan in wages. Peng and the workers frequently petitioned the government and initiated legal procedures in order to obtain the wages in arrears and his contractor fees. During this process, Peng was harassed and illegally detained before being sentenced to two years in prison on trumped-up charges.
In the spring of 2010, after his release, Peng Yingquan talked to Han Dongfang about his detention and his struggle against the Wufeng government authorities.
“It’s because I went after the workers’ wages and they didn’t want to pay them. I tried to sue them, and they arrested me and locked me up, forcing me to cooperate. When I cooperated, they still didn’t make good on their promises,” he explained.
When the road project was completed in 2005, Peng said, “It was inspected, and both parties signed off on it.” Peng received more than four million yuan, for materials and equipment and “a portion” of the workers’ wages, while an additional one-plus million yuan in workers’ wages was left in arrears, along with another 80,000 or 90,000 yuan in materials and other costs.
At the root of the problem, Peng said, was the fact that the project had never been officially approved, and as such the local government officials who pushed the project were unable to secure the necessary funds. The funding had to be diverted from “other places” in the county treasury, but in the end, “they weren’t able to divert” the rest of the money. “The result was that I didn’t get even one cent,” said Peng. He was only able to pay the workers, all from nearby Changyang and Wufeng counties, “about 25 percent of their wages at the most” for their year of work.
Peng sensed that the money would not be forthcoming even before the project was completed. “I sent letters to the local labour bureau, county government, county people’s congress, and the county Letters and Complaints Bureau, and also visited personally,” Peng explained, but all to no avail. There was “virtually no response,” he said.
Peng decided that; “since I had invested so much, after I finished the project and got all the receipts in order, I would use the petitioning process or the legal system to get the money.”
Peng went to the higher-level Yichang Municipal People’s Congress and Municipal Letters and Complaints Bureau. But after he was rebuffed by both institutions, Peng took 30 or 40 workers with him to demand their wages.
After this incident, in early 2007, Peng was warned by the head of the Wufeng County Public Security Bureau (PSB) that; “You are not allowed to take migrant workers to go and demand payment from the government; if you do it, we will lock you up.” Peng was further told “not to seek any payment at all,” and was threatened with being “put in a detention centre over the Chinese New Year.”
Later that year, Peng was actually detained for three days. There were no formal procedures for his detention, he said, “they only took a few notes.” He was locked up in a police station with no access to the telephone. He was released after agreeing not to make further demands for payment. But, said Peng, “I wasn’t afraid of them, and I sued them in July 2007.”
Going to court
Peng hired an attorney in Yichang, and filed a lawsuit demanding payment of over two million yuan from the Wufeng County Road Department. Peng said that he had a very good case;
They had the work volume and the unit price, and a primary-school student could have understood it: the work volume times the unit price was the total price. My evidence was irrefutable, and when Wufeng County saw that they could not win, Deputy Mayor Tang got involved. He was the manipulator behind the scenes…he went to see Deputy Judge Wang of the Yichang Intermediate People’s Court, who was in charge of the civil court, and Judge Wang then took our dossier in hand and stalled proceedings for nine months.
On October 6, 2007, Peng was detained again, this time by the Wufeng PSB’s Economic Crime Investigation Brigade, who accused him of “appropriating a company Jeep.” Peng explained that he was the sole owner of a subsidiary company in Wufeng and that “they claimed that I appropriated this company’s Jeep,” essentially accusing him of stealing his own Jeep. During this detention period, Peng said, brigade personnel “told me that I should drop my lawsuit, saying that suing the Road Department was like suing Mayor Tang, because he was the deputy-mayor in charge of transportation.”
Peng was detained for 20 days at several hotels within the Wufeng county limits, before being formally arrested on the charge of appropriating a company Jeep. “They told me that, if I did not cooperate, I would be like a sheep on the chopping block. If they wanted to cut off my feet, they would do it; if they wanted cut off my hands, they would do it…they also said that the PSB specialized in assassinating people,” Peng refuted the notion that the PSB conducted assassinations, “and I didn’t agree to cooperate,” he said.
After Peng was arrested, Judge Wang of the Yichang Intermediate People’s Court came to the Wufeng detention centre to “force me to negotiate.” The judge said that the Road Department would pay about 200,000 yuan of the money owed, if Peng abandoned his claim for the rest of the workers’ pay, “and then they would release me,” Otherwise, Peng was told, he would be sent to prison.
Peng did not accept the judge’s terms. “I requested that the judge issue a decision as soon as possible, that this was the amount of work I did and this is the money I should get…a fair and just decision.” Meanwhile, due to a lack of evidence, the criminal charge against Peng was reduced from appropriating a company Jeep to submitting duplicate receipts for reimbursement.
The judge and another court official returned to the Wufeng detention centre in March of 2008 to persuade Peng to cooperate. They said that “the Road Department and Mayor Tang acknowledged and took responsibility for the 1.14 million yuan in workers’ wages,” Peng continued. If Peng would sign a written document indicating the same, they would release him. Peng signed the document but was not released.
Instead, when the court issued a ruling on 15 April 2008, it stated that the Road Department would give Peng “180,000 yuan in cash and had no liability for the rest.” The same day, “someone came from the enforcement department of the Wufeng County Court and said that Mayor Tang and the Road Department would pay about 200,000 yuan of the wages, and the remaining 800,000-plus was my responsibility, but they would not enforce that.” The authorities wanted Peng to sign a mediation agreement with the workers, but; “I told the Wufeng court that either Mayor Tang or the Road Department should sign this mediation agreement not me.” The response was, “If you don’t sign, and Mayor Tang gets a hold of you, you should consider the consequences.” In the end, Peng refused to sign.
But before Peng was sentenced, the authorities tried to negotiate with him again, telling him that “after I got out, the matter would be closed, and they would give me a light sentence.”
I said to them at the time, if I have broken the law, then you sentence me according to the rules. I don’t need you to lighten my sentence. If I have committed a crime, then you go ahead and carry out the correct punishment and give me three, five, eight or ten years, just sentence me according to the rules.
Two hearings were held at the Wufeng detention centre; “they didn’t dare to have the hearings at the courthouse,” said Peng. His lawyer and an opposing lawyer were present, though his family was not allowed to attend. Peng was sentenced to two years imprisonment for “embezzlement.”
While in prison, Peng made several appeals, attracting media attention but his sentence was not reduced. Moreover, during this time, his lawyer was harassed as well. The Wufeng PSB “wanted to lock up my lawyer, too,” Peng said. “I only learned after I got out that they had subpoenaed my lawyer” to cooperate in their investigation. In spite of the threats, the attorney stuck with Peng throughout both the civil and criminal cases. Peng gave him a lot of credit: “He’s a real expert,” Peng said.
Life after prison
Peng was released on 25 October 2009, having served his entire two-year sentence. Upon his release, Peng petitioned the municipal, provincial, and even the central government to get the money owed to him and the workers. After a higher court refused the case and ordered the intermediate court to hear the case again, Peng’s case was set for retrial in March 2010. At the time of the interview, however, there was still no decision.
Peng felt that, “since this case is a big deal now, they certainly can’t make a crooked decision.” But, because there is no time limit, it is possible that the authorities will stretch the case out as before. There were more behind-the scenes negotiations taking place. “I often prod them,” said Peng. “As long as the intermediate court gives me a result, I’ll be satisfied.”
Peng explained that, “this kind of thing happens a lot in Wufeng...they have done this kind of thing to quite a few people, and many people are afraid of them.”
Peng admitted to Han that he got so frustrated during the long, tortuous process that he had threatened to kill the officials who had framed him. “At the time, I thought that I wanted to kill them all when I got out,” he said. He even said so in his petition letters to the various levels of government. “I thought about those workers who had laboured with me all those years, working until their hands were blistered and bleeding…they finished the project with me, and I thought, I’ve let these workers down, over one hundred of them,” he said.
However, Peng said he was now ready to move on: “I feel that, if they honestly extend a formal apology to me, I would like to forgive them.”
“Sitting in jail for two years felt like three years of college,” Peng explained. “Seeing clearly the dark side of society will help me a great deal in how I conduct myself from now on.”