China is trying to force employers to pay back wages totaling 100 billion yuan (US$12 billion) to migrant workers, state newspapers reported yesterday, highlighting official worries about possible unrest by the country's vast mobile work force.
The amount is due to 94 million workers, and 70 percent is owed by construction companies, which are among the biggest employers of migrants, the Shanghai Daily and China Daily said. Restaurants are the second biggest debtors, they said, citing data from the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions.
The report suggests that official concern is growing about the possibility of unrest among the hundreds of millions of Chinese who have been left behind by their country's economic boom.
Delays in wages of months or even years are common both among heavily indebted state companies and smaller export-oriented firms whose profits rely on low labor costs.
The new Chinese leadership that took power earlier this year has made improving the lives of farmers and workers a priority, though they have yet to propose major policy changes. The question of late payments has aroused "massive concern" among Chinese leaders, including Premier Wen Jiabao (
Construction, where many projects are financed by speculative investment, has a reputation for paying workers late.
In Beijing alone, workers at 3,407 construction projects are owed a total of 3 billion yuan (about US$370 million), the Shanghai Daily said.
Nationwide, worker protests ranging from impromptu roadblocks to hunger strikes and suicide threats are frequent.
The news reports yesterday didn't give details on how the government would compel employers to pay migrant workers. But the Shanghai Daily said China's labor law allows for companies to be fined up to five times the amount owed to workers.
The payment push comes ahead of the annual Lunar New Year holiday, when millions of migrants return to their hometowns with money and gifts of clothes and appliances. The holiday falls in January this year.
Money sent home by urban workers is vital to the rural economy, where incomes have stagnated for years.
Urban wages average about 800 yuan (US$100) per month in China, although construction and restaurant work often pays much less.
"Laborers are entitled to just compensation for their honest work, which is the most direct and important reflection of their rights," the paper quoted Li Jianfei, a scholar at Beijing's People's University who helped draft the labor law, as saying.