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Low wages, cruel bosses, no rights

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Beijing — It's a steamy evening in the cramped dormitory room where Huang Benlin spends his nights, and violence is on his mind.

He is a small wiry man in a grease-stained shirt, a migrant worker from a small village in Sichuan province who has suffered 24 years of low wages, exploitation, long hours and cruel bosses. Now, he is plotting his revenge.

One of his bosses, the owner of a trucking company, has refused to pay him 4800 yuan (about $720 Canadian) in owed wages. For a migrant, it is a huge sum of money — almost as much as Mr. Huang normally sends home from a year of hard labour in Beijing's construction zones.

He went to the courts, struggled through a year of legal procedures, and lost at every level. His former boss had bribed the judges, and the prosecutors were indifferent. So now he is ready for a more brutal response.

"I'll go to my ex-boss for one last talk," he muses. "I know he won't give me my money, but I'll use the chance to scout out his place. Then I'll come back at night to destroy the trucks. I'll smash them with heavy tools, or I'll ambush the trucks on the road."

Mr. Huang, a weather-beaten 39-year-old with a wife and two children back home in Sichuan province, has persuaded himself that an act of vengeance will force the authorities to pay attention to him.

"The police will arrest me, but they'll ask me why I did it. And finally they will have to listen to the injustices that I suffered."

In the desperate world of China's migrant workers, it almost makes sense. Violence often erupts between the labourers and their employers. Usually, of course, it is the bosses who win. On at least five occasions, Mr. Huang's bosses have hired thugs to assault those who demanded their wages.

Of the 10 workers who never got their wages from the trucking boss last year, Mr. Huang was the only one who took action. His workmates gave up and went home. They were unwilling to file a lawsuit, which costs a month's wages or more. Mr. Huang is a rarity: a migrant who fights back.

"We feel like slaves," he says. "We have to obey our bosses or we won't get our money. We're always under their control. There's always a feeling of insecurity. It's like being a prisoner."

Though often abused and neglected, migrants are the muscle of China's economic miracle. They build the skyscrapers and expressways, they make the cheap export goods, they drive the trucks and lug the steel and cement that has lifted China into its boom years.

They do the toughest and dirtiest jobs that nobody else will do. It is their labour that allowed China to become the factory to the world.

The flood of peasants into China's cities is the biggest migration in human history. Already, some 200 million have abandoned their impoverished villages to move to the booming centres. Another 500 million could be on the move in the next half century.

Yet their working conditions are often horrendous. Under the Communist system of residence registration, migrant workers are controlled by an apartheid-like system that discriminates against those who lack a city residence permit. A complex web of discriminatory laws and policies has made it almost impossible for peasants to obtain an urban residence permit, so most migrants have a semi-legal or illegal status. Lacking legal rights, they are easily exploited by ruthless employers.

They have no social or medical insurance, no unemployment or housing benefits, no trade unions, no education rights for their children, and no written contracts with employers — even though Chinese law supposedly guarantees these rights. They live in monitored and controlled compounds, where they must beg for permission to go outside. They sleep in crude dormitory rooms of 20 square metres, usually shared with 15 to 20 workers.

Many earn as little as $1 for a 12-hour day, far below the supposed minimum wage. They often work for six or seven days a week, sometimes for days and nights without a break. Most are paid only $60 to $125 a month — much of which goes to pay for their food and bed and the stacks of permits they need in order to work. Their wages have barely increased over the past decade, even as the cost of living rises. Without any unions, they must resort to violence or expensive lawsuits if a boss refuses to pay their wages.

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.

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."

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