While many think of Chinese New Year as a time for parades and colorful fireworks, for thousands of Chinese construction workers the big question on their mind is “Will I get paid this year?”
In the lead up to Chinese New Year on February 16, several wage arrear protests have popped up across the country as construction workers demand to be paid what they were promised. According to China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong based organization, wage arrear protests in the construction sector account for over one-third of all protests in China.
An incredible 55 million workers are employed in China’s construction sector, most of them rural migrant workers travelling to China’s urban centers. Labor groups and scholars say half of them have been unpaid or underpaid at least once in lifetime.
Open Democracy explains:
“I know of many who get no pay in months. We just continue working, hoping to get paid at year-end. Sometimes we don’t, it happened for me on my last job. I called the boss. He said it would come in June, but it never did”, said Cheng, who has worked 10 years in construction.
Workers rarely protest, while the construction is ongoing. Easy to replace and less homogenous compared to workers in manufacturing, they stick to the promise of payment at New Year or at the end of the project.
“What can you do? If you complain while work is ongoing, you get fired and never see any money”, said Chang, a former construction worker turned activist. Keegan Elmer of China Labour Bulletin agrees: “Construction workers do not have the same leverage as workers in manufacturing who can temporarily halt the assembly line, inflicting serious losses for employers”.
The Chinese government knows wage arrears is a serious problem. Each year, the government campaigns to collect overdue pay. In 2016 in Zhejiang Province for example, £332 million was recovered for 258,000 construction workers.
Unfortunately, most workers do not see this assistance, and many do not feel they have the ability to get justice.
“Many mistrust the legal system. Together with the lack of independent unions, many workers believe they are alone and helpless,” said Michael Ma of SACOM, a labor group in Hong Kong.