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Hidden in plain sight: forced labour constructing China

Invisible coercion through withheld wages, lack of employment contracts, and discrimi-nation of migrant workers is widespread in China's construction sector.

Construction Worker on Bamboo Scaffolding in Xingpingzhen, Guangxi, China. Chris Goldberg/flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

To most people, the Chinese New Year equals colourful parades and amazing fireworks, but at year-end construction workers in China are above all concerned about the question: ‘do I get paid this year’?

Thousands don’t. Hundreds of thousands receive something not even close to the promised salary. Wage arrears protests have been booming in the months leading up to the New Year on 16 February. Far from every protest gets violent, but when they do, losses are bigger than just the annual pay. Many bloggers show photos of workers beaten to a pulp.

Attacks on employers happen too, although less commonly, such as when the 31-year-old construction worker Cato stabbed his employer in an argument about his pay in November 2017. Multiple cases of worker suicides and employer homicides are registered each year, and a local court counted 18 murders related to wage arrears within the last year in Beijing alone. Approximately 70% took place in the two months before New Year. Wage arrears and debt have become one of the most common motives in murder cases according to Beijing Intermediate Court no. 3.

Living on IOUs

Wage arrears in the construction sector account for over one-third of all protests in China registered and published online by China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong based organisation. Many reports have documented the massive scale of withheld wages and lack of payment. A 10,000 questionnaire survey by Little Bird, a Chinese labour NGO, concluded that over 75% of construction workers received, or expected to receive, salaries less frequent than half-yearly. Most hoped to get paid eventually by year-end, despite legislation stipulating that salary must be paid on monthly basis.

China’s construction sector accounts for 55 million workers according to official statistics. Rural migrants comprise the vast majority. Half of all construction workers are estimated to have been deprived of payment at least once in their lifetime according to Chinese scholars and labour groups.

“Workers have no choice but to accept conditions at-hand or get fired and lose months of pay.”

“Many workers are forced to take unreasonable arrangement when their wages are withheld”, said Michael Ma, a  project officer in SACOM, a Hong Kong based organisation that last year revealed forced student internships among the world’s biggest electronics manufacturers. “Workers have no choice but to accept conditions at-hand or get fired and lose months of pay”.

Other exploitations are equally prevalent. Lack of em­ploy­ment contracts is widespread, and excessive and illegal overtime is abundant. On countless construction sites, unpaid workers are dependent on employers for housing and food. Often, migrant workers lack local networks and are systemically discriminated against when accessing social services and other support when working on construction sites far away from their rural home towns. According to International Labour Organisation, such issues are indicators of forced labour.

“Withholding wages contains a substantial coercive element by itself. In other industries, and countries, such conditions combined are debated as potential indicators of forced labour”, said Matt Friedman, the former UN regional manager of anti-trafficking in Asia. “When your wage is withheld, how much are you then inclined to complain about unpaid extra work, incorrect registered overtime, poor accommodation let alone the lack of monthly payments for many months? The risk of getting fired is very real and then the hope of getting paid eventually is lost for good”.

Stay quiet, or be fired

On a construction site in the Haidan District of Beijing, Cheng, a foreman, and Gao, an excavator, are part of a work gang from a rural part of the Henan Province expecting to see their first pay check at the end of the year. Housed on-site, they work without contracts 9-10 hours a day, most days a month.

“I know of many who get no pay in months. We just continue working, hoping to get paid at year-end. Sometimes we don’t, it happened for me on my last job. I called the boss. He said it would come in June, but it never did”, said Cheng, who has worked 10 years in construction.

Workers rarely protest, while the construction is ongoing. Easy to replace and less homogenous compared to workers in manufacturing, they stick to the promise of payment at New Year or at the end of the project.

“What can you do? If you complain while work is ongoing, you get fired and never see any money”, said Chang, a former construction worker turned activist. Keegan Elmer of China Labour Bulletin agrees: “Construction workers do not have the same leverage as workers in manufacturing who can tempo­ra­rily halt the assembly line, inflicting serious losses for employers”.

In bigger cities, labour NGOs are trying to help construction workers.

“Many who seek our help don’t have a contract to document their employment relationship. We sec­ret­ly record talks between workers and their employers to prove it, so workers have documentation to bring along to local authorities for compensation claims”, said Zhang, a labour NGO coordi­nator in an outer district of Shenzhen. “They are not easy to help. If they are not paid at New Year and live on-site, they could hurry on for another job at another site, especially if their family has debt to repay”.

Most labour NGOs have limited capacity. To many, assisting in wage compen­sation is a deman­ding task itself. Issues are addressed individually and always after the damage has been done – such as lack of pay, compensation for overtime, compensation for workplace injuries – instead of combined as cases of forced labour. Within the dominating, authoritative discourse such issues are addressed as labour disputes. But a forced labour perspective could trigger discussions about meaningful preventive measures instead of compensation actions taking place retrospectively.

Where is the enforcement?

The government recognises the problem of wage arrears. Each year, authorities campaign to collect overdue pay. In the Zhejiang Province alone, £332 million was recovered for distribution among 258,000 workers in 2016. Yet, many more workers are left without assistance. Authorities regularly put forward new measures and deadlines to address the problem, but enforcement is lacking behind. In 2012, the govern­ment promised to eliminate it by 2015. Last year, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security announced that wage arrears would be eradicated in 2020.

“Despite improved labour laws, the practice of withholding wages, unpaid wages and lack of contracts is still widespread”, said Michael Ma of SACOM. “Many mistrust the legal system. Together with the lack of independent unions, many workers believe they are alone and helpless”.

“Many mistrust the legal system. Together with the lack of independent unions, many workers believe they are alone and helpless”

The International Labour Organisation is unable to comment as the issue had never been discussed by the ILO supervisory system in terms of forced labour. This is because because China has not ratified ILO Forced Labour Convention 29, though ratification is discussed. Other UN officials couldn’t comment either as the issue had not been discussed by the UN Human Rights Council.

“There are widespread abuses and exploitation practices in China’s construction sector, many amounting to forced labour and the government should do much more to address them in a comprehensive way”, said Jakub Sobik, spokesman for Anti-Slavery International. “The difficulties investigating such issues in China make it hard to document the extent and forms of forced labour there, so opening up for scrutiny has to be the first step to addressing these problems”.

Forced labour among ordinary workers on China’s ordinary labour market receives vanishing little attention from the inter­national community. Only three cases of forced labour in China have had substantial international attention within the last decade: In brick kilns since 2007, in prisons because of the laogai system of ‘education through work’, and in the current case of forced student internships among the world’s biggest electronics manufacturers, besides the odd stories about exploitation of persons with disabilities. Even the US Department of Labor relies almost solely on decade-old sources for China in its widely-recognized List of goods produced by forced labour.

It’s not easy, and the Foreign NGO law of January 1, 2017 has not made it easier. Still, if the UN Sustainable Development Goal on eradicating modern slavery, including forced labour, is to be taken seriously, then a closer look into forced labour in China is needed.

Names of persons from mainland China have been anonymized.

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