A number of rural migrant workers from China's countryside seeking work in Beijing have jumped to their deaths from buildings to protest non-payment of their wages, leading officials in the city to call for more efficient labor representation.
"It's very difficult with migrant workers. They can say, "Give me my wages — ; it's this much money." The employer can pretend there's no such thing, and there's no redress," an official from the Haidian District Industrial Safety Inspection Bureau in the capital told RFA correspondent Han Dongfang.
The official confirmed the recent spate of suicides or attempted suicides but declined to give exact details. "They have their own organized pattern. One person goes up [to the top of the building to jump] — ; and another calls the emergency number. They organize it," he said. "Because it's not just one person, it's all the 100 or more workers who are affected."
An official at the local police bureau said suicide was frequently used as a negotiating tactic in the absence of clear legal channels to go through. "Not every migrant worker who climbs to the top of the building and threatens to jump off is really going to do it," the official told RFA. "It's a strategy they adopt in order to protect their own interests."
"From the point of view of the police, not only do we not support this practice, we issue a strong warning," she said. "They need someone to represent their interests, and they need to understand how to pursue their own interests through normal channels, such as going to court when appropriate."
Millions of migrant laborers seek work in China's major urban centers every year. While regulations were recently changed to free them from a system binding them to their registered household, they still do not enjoy the same rights as urban dwellers.
Still regarded as peasants regardless of what job they do, how long they have lived in the city, or even if they have lost their land, many have difficulty in getting their wages paid after the work has been done.
"They don't have a union. Not yet in the construction industry at least," the official said, adding that his office had more than 9,000 migrant workers in its remit. He said that migrant workers rarely signed employment contracts, which would give them more of a basis on which to sue defaulting employers.
He said that the seasonal nature of construction work and the large floating population of migrant construction workers made it still harder for the workers to organize. "When the work has finished, the people disperse," the official said. "It's not the same as the workers in a fixed industry like a factory, for example. We have issued many documents... tried to persuade them to register with us. But some of them insist on using private labor agencies."
The government is devising ways to enable migrant worker populations to collect their wages via government departments to prevent employers from getting into arrears and defaulting on wage payments, the official said. He said government industrial officials had begun supervising employers' payroll activities in conjunction with local police. "We have had to hold meetings including representatives from all parties. They have reached a basic agreement now. But I think there will still be problems."
Non-payment of wages has become endemic across China, either through exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers or because local governments and state-owned enterprises have run out of cash.
China's new generation of leaders under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has scrambled to identify itself with ordinary Chinese people, struggling in the face of rampant official corruption and a growing gap between rich and poor. However, its emphasis on putting people first has yet to be felt by most.