New year deadline to resolve back-pay disputes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 December, 2011, 12:00am


Beijing has set a January 23 deadline, Lunar New Year's Day, for the settlement of most back-pay disputes involving migrant workers amid concerns about social unrest caused by labour disputes in recent months.

Nine central government agencies including the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the National Development and Reform Commission have launched a crackdown targeting rogue employers who hold up payments to migrant workers, the ministry said. A new directive gives law enforcement departments seven days to settle back-pay disputes involving more than 10 workers. It follows a number of large strikes in recent months.

The back-pay issue prompted a revision to the mainland's criminal code in February which stipulated that employers could face up to seven years in prison for the ill-intentioned withholding of payments to workers. However, few have been prosecuted.

Human Resources and Social Security Minister Yin Weimin vowed on Monday to make back-pay disputes involving migrant workers a priority ahead of the Lunar New Year to head off possible social unrest.

But Zhang Zhiqiang , a Beijing-based lawyer who specialises in migrant labour issues, said the latest directive, involving so many government agencies, might prove just as toothless as February's revision because of a lack of accountability.

He said migrant workers on construction sites were particularly vulnerable to rogue employers and might have to wait for months to be paid because few had signed contracts. Even those who had signed contracts had little clout when it came to enforcing conditions.

According to a National Bureau of Statistics survey of migrant workers two years ago that sampled 68,000 rural households in 7,100 villages, nearly 60 per cent did not have contracts. Of those working on construction sites, 26 per cent had contracts.

Zhang said the root cause of back-pay disputes involving migrant workers was a flaw in the oversight of construction projects by the authorities, with developers often outsourcing to many layers of subcontractors to drive down costs. This means workers dealing with many employers - who could blame others and shirk responsibility - to get back pay.