Sun, Mar 27, 2016 - Page 4 News List

Public sentencing of unpaid workers backfires in China


Authorities in southwestern China had apparently thought their Cultural Revolution-style public sentencing of eight workers who took to the streets demanding back wages would stand as a warning to others at a time of a slowing economy and rising worker unrest.

Instead, the parading of the three women and five men through streets with their heads bowed and a guard on each arm has drawn fire and sympathy with the defendants, and calls for the deadbeat bosses to be publicly humiliated.

The incident in Sichuan Province’s Langzhong City underscores concerns over the system’s inability to protect worker rights against politically connected employers and a government obsessed with social stability and terrified of rippling unrest — even at the expense of justice.

“Where is the dignity of the law? Where is the moral conscience on the earth?” said Sima Nan (司馬南), an outspoken academic and social critic better known for his unapologetic defense of China’s Marxist political system.

The trial punished workers seeking their rights, “but pardoned those who maliciously failed to pay up without even a word of moral condemnation,” Sima wrote on his public microblog.


Wage arrears are a major problem for Chinese laborers, especially migrants working on casual terms in the construction industry. Wages are supposed to be paid before workers travel home the month before the Lunar New Year holiday, but many contractors still fail to do so.

Despite Beijing’s routine demands that workers be paid in full and on time, the problem persists, largely because local officials either do not care or are in cahoots with employers. Their first response after defusing the initial confrontation is almost always to suppress, rather than get to the root of the conflict, often employing vague laws against obstructing traffic or disturbing public order.

“It is not an insolvable issue, but when government officials are not elected, it is not in their interest to find a solution,” said Wang Jiangsong (王江松), a Beijing-based academic studying labor issues.

In some cases, workers have turned to extreme measures to draw attention to the plight, including blocking roads and railways, staging sit-ins atop billboards and bridges, and even attacking authorities or fellow citizens.


In one particularly gruesome case, construction worker Ma Yongping (馬永平) set fire to two plastic barrels of gasoline on a bus in northwestern China in January, killing 17 people. According to local media, a futile two-year effort to collect unpaid wages had destroyed Ma’s marriage. An earlier attempt to draw attention to his situation by scaling a telecommunications tower and dousing himself with gasoline resulted in a 10-day jail sentence on a charge of acting maliciously.

The workers in Langzhong had congregated in front of the office of the debtor, a real-estate developer, and later blocked the entrance to a local tourist attraction in August last year in hopes of putting enough pressure on the government to goad it into helping them.

When police came to clear the scene, the two sides clashed and arrests were made, according to official narratives.

Photographs of the March 16 sentencing rally in Langzhong showed villagers were summoned to the spectacle to be warned not to repeat the same crime. They were lined in a public square behind placards identifying their individual villages, facing the defendants on the stage, each flanked by police guards, while rifle-toting sentries stood nearby. No defense lawyers were in sight.

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