Daniel Bardsley (Foreign Correspondent)
2 June, 2011
BEIJING. Hei Pern's new job as a translator for an oil company seemed like just the career move he was looking for.
It offered Mr Hei, 22, an English literature graduate, originally from China's Ningxia region, a reasonable salary of $1,000 (Dh3,673) a month and the chance to travel overseas, something he had never done before.
Now, little more than three months since he started his job with such enthusiasm, the Beijing-based Mr Hei is unemployed and struggling for money, having quit after not receiving his promised pay.
In total, he earned just 3,700 yuan (Dh2,089) for almost three months' work, about one fifth of what his contract said he was due.
It is an all-too-common scenario among China's migrant workers, who can frequently go long periods without being paid.
"Anyone who worked honestly and hard [would] feel angry at these people," Mr Hei said.
"I didn't expect this would happen in the capital under the emperor's eye. I was really surprised and shocked."
What surprised Mr Hei more than not being paid was the apparent indifference of the government departments that he contacted to resolve his case.
He visited the labour bureau and district court in the Chaoyang district of Beijing.
After being told his own complaints were insufficient, he paid a lawyer 600 yuan to write a letter to the labour bureau outlining his case.
But because the oil company is registered in the province of Xinjiang, despite having offices in Beijing, officials said there was nothing they could do.
"The government departments weren't trying to help people," he said. "They drink tea and smoke cigarettes. They try their best to get away without troubling themselves."
Unpaid wages are thought to most affect China's migrant workforce, which numbers more than 200 million. In 2006, the official All China Federation of Trade Unions reported unpaid wages that year totalled 100 billion yuan, with construction workers owed more than two thirds of that amount.
The following year state media reported as much as 175bn yuan was owed to workers.
The issue has been raised at China's legislature, the National People's Congress, with delegates suggesting employers should contribute to a "security fund" that would ensure workers were paid in the event that the employer defaulted.
In Chongqing, the authorities this month took far more drastic action, deploying a SWAT team of police to raid a construction site where workers were reportedly owed up to 20,000 yuan each.
The city is run by Bo Xilai, an ambitious 61-year-old politician who is expected to become a member of China's supreme nine-strong Politburo Standing Committee next year.
Many other cases have seen workers lose their wages, or even their lives.
In October last year, state media reported that a migrant worker in Sichuan province was beaten to death by men from a personnel company after trying to claim his unpaid wages.
In the city of Shenzhen, workers have been banned from petitioning over unpaid wages in the run-up to the Universiade, or World Student Games in August, a move criticised by the state media.
Despite the issue being discussed for more than a decade, unpaid wages are still "a huge problem", said Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based campaign group.
"Every year, particularly around Chinese new year, you see stories about hundreds of millions of yuan owed to migrant workers, particularly in construction," he said.
One reason, he said, is that the government does not have enough labour inspectors to visit construction sites.
In addition, many workers are employed on a casual basis and lack contracts. This makes it almost impossible for them to seek redress.
They have no proof how much they are supposed to have been paid, and how much they were actually given.
It is also an acute problem in manufacturing, with workers often going without their salary when their factories struggle with cash flow.
In some cases "workers will simply stage a protest and try to bring their plight to the attention of the local government. That's what happened in Chongqing", he said.
"A lot of commentators have been praising [this], but are you going to send a SWAT team to every single construction site?"
With China's banks encouraged to rein in lending to construction projects to prevent the economy from overheating, the problem could worsen in the near future, Mr Crothall warned.
"That's going to create cash-flow problems and the first people to suffer will be the construction workers themselves," he said.