Chinese New Year Brings Labor Issues to the Fore

People wait in line to reach the counter to purchase train tickets ahead of the spring festival holidays to celebrate the Lunar New Year in Hangzhou, in eastern China's Zhejiang province. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

If you feel the earth rumbling over the next month, don't worry. It's only the movement of Chinese holiday travelers making their estimated two billion treks across the country.

The Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, is fast approaching, falling on Jan. 29 this year. The holiday is China's largest, and everyone who can returns home to join family for a week or more of relaxation.

Among those scrambling for train tickets home are China's internal migrants, laborers from the countryside who have left their villages to work year-round in booming cities as factory hands, housemaids, carpenters and waitresses. For many migrant workers, whose ranks have swollen to more than a hundred million over the past two decades, the Lunar New Year is their only annual chance to return home — if they can make it.

And a severe obstacle stands in the way of their return: non-payment of wages.

Employers of migrant laborers have made a habit of withholding wages and paying less than promised. Many migrant workers do not have labor contracts, as employers often refuse to sign them. With 150 million idle farmers in the Chinese countryside, competition for jobs gives migrant laborers little leverage in negotiating with recruiters.

Even if they do hold labor contracts, employers have been known to run off when they can't come up with workers' wages.

The problem of wage arrears is especially acute in the debt-laden construction industry, which employs mostly young men from the countryside.

With migrant workers seeking to return home with cash for their families, the run-up to the Lunar New Year has now become a time of battles over the payment of back wages.

Pleading for Back Pay

"I want to go home to pass the New Year. Give me my wages!" Huang Shengzhong, a 41-year-old forklift repairman, repeated to his employer.

Huang and his wife hail from inland China's Hunan province, which they left four years ago for the city of Rui'an in coastal Zhejiang province. The couple's two children are being raised by their grandmother back in the village, reported the Xiaoxiang Morning News (Jan. 13), the paper that carried their story. Like many migrant workers in China's prosperous eastern cities, Huang and his wife have "lived on the coast but never seen the ocean," toiling long hours with few days off.

This year Huang and his wife decided they would make the trip home for Lunar New Year, to see their family for the first time in nearly four years.

But to buy train tickets, they first needed the 4,000 Chinese yuan ($496) owed to Huang in wages.

Pleading for his wages earned Huang only blows from his boss. The encounter put Huang in the hospital, where he died a week later. His employer disappeared.


For China's migrant workers, confrontation is often the only way to obtain their wages. Arbitration is a complicated and time-consuming process, impossible to initiate when one works all day and irrelevant if no labor contract is signed.

Those owed back pay have had to resort to other methods.

Ningxia Web (Jan. 6), the online arm of a provincial news agency, has listed four extreme methods of pleading for wages that have been seen over the past year. The measures included appealing to authorities by making scenes outside of government offices as well as the now-common approach of threatening to jump from a high building.

More unusual was the strategy of members of a construction team in December that forcibly detained their foreman in their temporary shack on the work site.

With little recourse to formal channels for demanding unpaid wages, many migrant laborers simply appeal to their employers. This can lead to physical exchanges, predictably tragic, and occasionally the most extreme of measures, murder.

In May 2005, a migrant construction worker, Wang Binyu, went to the house of his employer to demand his wages. His employer called relatives for help and a fight ensued, ending with Wang killing four of his assailants.

Wang's case drew widespread attention in China, but was put to rest quickly with the carrying out of a death sentence in October.

Government Responses

Migrant workers are a crucial component of the engine of Chinese economic growth.

According to official estimates for 2005, migrant laborers contributed 15 to 30 percent of China's G.D.P. growth. Each one generated on average 25,000 Chinese yuan ($3102) for China's cities and earned only 8000 yuan ($993) in return.

Their earnings feed back into the rural economy, becoming the major source of income in some areas and a check on rising rural-urban disparity.

The government recognizes the significance of migrants' remittances for poor regions and claims to be addressing the situation.

State media have played up the success of courts in helping migrant laborers receive unpaid wages. Numerous news reports in recent weeks have told of elated workers finally getting their earnings after successful arbitration.

And yet stories like Huang Shengzhong's remain all too common. The tragedy of Wang Binyu, the frustrated construction worker, gained such a high profile because many saw him as much a victim as a criminal. Government fear of that sympathy sped up his trial and execution, which also made clear the continuing official preference for squeezing productivity out of migrant workers over addressing their grievances.

Meanwhile, government agencies are taking moderate measures to protect the wages that migrants are bringing home for the holiday.

This year the southwestern city of Chengdu, a transport hub for many migrant workers returning to their homes in its Sichuan province, has dispatched eight "Iron Hawk Detachments" to defend the cash that many rail passengers are carrying with them, Xinhua News Agency (Jan. 13) reported. The detachments are anti-theft squads charged with roaming trains to ensure the safety of the cash migrants earned through the "blood and sweat of a year's toil."

That is, if migrants can receive those earnings in the first place.

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