MOJ Author Recommends Ways to Resolve Back Pay Disputes

February 14, 2005

In an article posted on the Ministry of Justice Web site, author Ruan Zhanjiang discusses the increasing problem of unpaid wages for workers. The problem of wage arrears becomes especially acute before the Lunar New Year holiday begins each year. Although some government agencies and local unions have publicized the rights of migrant workers, the workers themselves continue to lose wages and take to the streets to regain them.

Ruan points out that local governments are not equipped to force employers to pay back wages, and says that governments’ failure to pay out funds for completed construction projects frequently causes employers not to pay workers. Ruan also expresses the view that Chinese courts are inadequate to deal with wage arrears, because sanctions for nonpayment are minimal. In addition, workers may lose in court and end up with nothing.

Ruan recommends, therefore, that the construction industry system be fixed, and that local governments stop the practice of not paying for construction projects when completed. Ruan also advocates that local governments supervise the payment of wage arrears according to the laws and regulations.

Ruan thinks that workers should organize to protect themselves and to cope with nonpaying employers. But workers who organize themselves frequently have no opportunity to hold a rational dialogue with their employers, and as a result often turn to public demonstrations and violence. For example, Boxun reports that 1,000 workers clashed with police in a Shenzhen joint-venture toy factory because they refused to return to their home villages without their back wages. A number of workers were injured and a police car was destroyed.

The Ministry of Labor and local labor bureaus have made much of their recent efforts to enforce back pay regulations. Yu Mingqin, a Deputy Minister of Labor, was recently quoted in the South China Morning Post, "We have basically solved the issue of back pay for migrant workers…" Those working closely with migrant workers greet such statements skeptically. For example, Li Tao, director of an NGO specializing in migrant welfare, points out that employers have many legal loopholes to avoid paying workers. For example, employers may ask workers to sign false receipts for wages they have not received. Zhou Litai, a Chongqing labor rights attorney, told the SCMP that he does not believe the government’s claim that 90 percent of the back wage disputes have been resolved. “Having these measures is better than nothing,” he said, “but many workers still don’t get their pay.”