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Employers are legally required to pay the migrants every month, but they routinely delay their wages until the end of the year, when the migrants return home for the Spring Festival and even then they find excuses to avoid paying.
More than 70 per cent of migrant workers are owed money by their employers, according to national surveys. An astounding $15-billion in unpaid wages is owed, primarily in the construction sector.
One sociologist notes that the unpaid migrants can be accurately described as slaves, since they toil at their jobs for nothing more than a dormitory room and a couple of meals a day. If so, China has at least 10 million slaves.
The unpaid wages are a mounting concern for Beijing, which worries they will become a source of social unrest. A growing number of unpaid workers have held dramatic protests.
Dozens have climbed onto buildings or construction cranes, alone or in groups, and threatened to jump. Hundreds have blockaded or picketed their employers. At least one worker protested by setting himself on fire. At a factory in Guangdong province, about 6,000 workers rioted for 36 hours this spring when they didn't get the pay they were promised.
Gao Mingyu, a migrant from Henan province, led a group of 50 migrants to work on a construction site in Beijing in 2002. Five months later, the project was finished, but their wages were never paid.
"At the beginning, I went to the company offices every day, inviting them for meals and sending them cigarettes, but none of them gave us our wages," Mr. Gao recalls. "They were so bad-hearted. So I went to various government agencies, but they all said I had to go to court. A court case would cost 2500 yuan and that's impossible for us to afford.
"Finally, a judge was sent to hear our case. But the bosses actually denied they had hired us and the judge seemed to believe it. They must have bribed him. Now I'm living with friends and I can't even afford a meal, but I don't dare to go back home without getting our wages."
Migrants such as Mr. Gao and Mr. Huang are crucial to the Chinese economy. Every year, they send about $55-billion back to their home villages, where the average income is only a few hundred dollars a month.
More than 40 per cent of peasant income is now derived from migrant labour.
Yet there is widespread discrimination against migrants in the cities. They are harassed by police who arrest them or demand bribes because they lack residence permits. Millions of migrants are arrested and sent back to their home villages every year. Most cannot send their children to urban schools because of heavy fees and other restrictions.
Feng Shouli, a migrant from Jilin province, wanted to send his son to one of the three schools near his Beijing workplace. "But one of them charges an annual fee of more than 20,000 yuan, which I can't afford," he says. "The second school is only for Beijing-registered children. And the third claimed they had no room for my son, although they were obviously lying. So we went to a special school for migrant workers, but I was astonished by the conditions. The classrooms were dirty, the equipment seemed to be salvaged from a dump, and the children were wild and filthy. It was more like a shelter than a school. So I sent my son back to his home town for school."
Yet despite the blatant discrimination and hardship, the flow of migrants to the major cities is expanding. Even now, only 37 per cent of China's population lives in the cities, whereas in most developed countries the population is 75 per cent urban. China hopes to catch up to the developed world by 2050, which would require more than 500 million peasants to move to the cities. As China becomes integrated into the World Trade Organization, an estimated 8 million peasants will become surplus every year.
In an effort to defuse the tensions, the Chinese government has issued new regulations to punish employers who fail to pay migrants. It has eased the traditional restrictions on travel by peasants, making it easier for them to work in the cities, and abolished a decree that allowed the police to detain migrants at random.