Skip navigation

Low wages, cruel bosses, no rights

Continued from Page 2

But the new decrees have been ineffective, and it is unclear whether they are enough to placate the growing army of restless and alienated migrants. Beneath the legal disputes, the migrants feel a deeper anger at their exploitation and low status. They know they are despised by the big-city middle classes. And they are often desperately lonely, far from their families, usually returning home just once a year.

Mr. Huang badly misses his wife and two teenage children, back home in the small farming village of Xinhua (New China) in rural Sichuan. He hasn't seen them for almost two years as he devoted all his energies to his legal fight in Beijing.

He was stunned by the first ruling in his case. The judge, in a brief visit to investigate the dispute, disappeared into a private room with the trucking-company boss for several minutes, apparently to receive a bribe. A few weeks later, the judge dismissed the lawsuit.

"I felt terrible, I was almost crying," Mr. Huang recalls.

Each of his legal appeals since then has failed. "Let him sue," his ex-boss sneered when The Globe and Mail phoned him. "Look at how he loses. I will win for sure."

Mr. Huang had assumed that Chinese laws would be better respected in Beijing, since it is the national capital. Instead, he found the laws ignored.

"I don't trust the law any more," he says. "It's so time-consuming and the result is always bad. It's obviously a very unfair system. They just defend their own. Even here in the capital of China, the law is never enforced."

Giving up on the legal route, Mr. Huang is obsessed with violence and vengeance. He has been deterred from action by a friend, who persuaded him that his life would be ruined if he was arrested. But he keeps brooding on the idea.

"Some day I will do it," he says ominously.

"I'm just waiting for the moment. I have to get my money back. My ex-boss is still refusing, but one day he will pay, and he will pay a heavier price than me."

With his court hearings effectively over, Mr. Huang decides to return home for a brief visit to his family. He puts on his best outfit: brown loafers, faded jeans, and a cheap grey suit jacket. A jar of tea is stuffed in the jacket pocket, and in his battered suitcase is a set of school books for his children. He can't afford a gift for his wife. "It's pathetic, I know, but she realizes we have financial hardships now," he says.

His home in the village is a two-storey mud-and-cement house, built with the proceeds of his migrant labour. There is no running water, no heating, no telephone, and only a few naked bulbs for light, but it's the best home they've ever had.

His wife tends their cotton and wheat crops, raises the children, and works at a noodle factory for $2 a day in her spare time. This is largely a village of women and old men. Most of the younger men, including all three of his brothers, have gone away as migrant labourers.

His wife, Tian Xiaohua, is shocked when she sees her husband. Always a skinny man, he has lost another five kilograms because of the stress of his legal battles. "My heart choked," she confesses later, but she says nothing to him.

His silver-haired mother is not so reluctant to speak her mind. "Look how thin you are," she frets as soon as she spots him. "You must not have eaten well."

He mumbles a reassurance. "I'm not thinner. Anyway it's fashionable now to be slim."

But she is having none of it. "You should stay at home, don't go away again."

His wife, too, is hoping he will drop the legal action.

"I want him to let it go," she says. "That boss is like a gangster. If he keeps asking for his wages, he could be in physical danger."

Mr. Huang disagrees. He is determined to keep fighting. He believes that an explosion is coming — and it might engulf more than just his former boss.

"There's an injustice in this society," he says at dinner in their darkened house that night. "We common people, the labourers, have done a lot to improve China's economy. We've done a lot more than the officials. If the injustices continue, we common people will be very disappointed. And our tactics could change."

Recommend this article? 0 votes

Back to top