Builders of the ‘New Beijing’ Cheated of Wages, Denied Essential Services
March 13, 2008
The Chinese government is all talk and no action when it comes to delivering meaningful protection and social services for migrant construction workers.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - Migrant construction workers building the “new Beijing” are routinely exploited by being denied proper wages, under dangerous conditions with neither accident insurance nor access to medical and other social services, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 61-page report, “One Year of My Blood,” documents the Chinese government’s failure to fulfill long-repeated promises to protect the rights of migrant construction workers, as well as to end deprivations caused by the discriminatory nature of China’s household registration (hukou) system. An estimated 1 million migrant construction workers, hailing from other parts of China, make up nearly 90 percent of Beijing’s construction workforce. These workers are the muscle behind completion of Olympic Games-related infrastructure and sporting venues. The Beijing Olympic Games begin on August 8, 2008.

“The Chinese government is all talk and no action when it comes to delivering meaningful protection and social services for migrant construction workers,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Despite years of government rhetoric, employers still cheat migrant construction workers of hard-earned wages. And when it comes to basic social services, the government still discriminates against migrants.”

The Human Rights Watch report documents how employers routinely force migrants to work, withhold wages for up to a year, then offer a lump sum payment which is considerably below the agreed wage rate and Beijing’s minimum wage rate. Some employers refuse to pay anything at all.

One worker told Human Rights Watch: “Since I first arrived at the work site, every day I’ve worked, I don’t have any money and I’ve never left [the work site] for relaxation.”

Another migrant worker explained how he was paid nothing, despite an oral agreement that his seven months’ wages would be paid in full at the completion of the project. The worker told Human Rights Watch: “(The company representative) said ‘the money hasn’t arrived yet’ (or) ‘the boss isn’t here’ (or) ‘the boss is busy,’ and so on, with such excuses for the delay.”

The Chinese hukou system of household registration, designed to prevent and control the mass influx of rural inhabitants to China’s cities, bars Beijing’s migrant construction workers from social welfare benefits such as medical care, which are only available to legally registered urban residents.

One migrant worker was required to submit copies of a Beijing hukou in order to file an insurance claim for medical fees related to an industrial accident. He had never had a Beijing hukou. The worker said to Human Rights Watch: “I thought to myself, ‘once again, the doors to legal protection are being slammed in my face,’” Likewise, other workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch explained how they could not file complaints against their employers for wage violations because they lacked Beijing residence permits.

Human Rights Watch said that employers continue to ignore labor laws with impunity, and calls by the Chinese leadership to protect migrant workers are undermined by the hukou system that discriminates against migrant workers. Instead of abolishing the household registration system, the government has begun granting migrant workers “temporary” urban residence permits, thus perpetuating a discriminatory system.

“If the Chinese government really wants to protect the migrant workers’ rights, it should start by scrapping the hukou system,” Richardson said. “That alone would make it easier for workers to file complaints and for authorities to prosecute employers who violate labor laws.”

China is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and as such has undertaken to guarantee its workers just and favorable conditions of work, including fair wages, a safe and healthy work environment, and reasonable limitations on working hours. Despite these obligations and similar standards in Chinese law, Human Rights Watch research has documented numerous abuses including:

  • Denial of regular monthly wage payments. Employers routinely flout Article 50 of the Labor Law, which stipulates wages are to be paid monthly, by offering annual lump sum payments, severely depriving migrant workers and their families of year-round security.
  • Non-payment or underpayment of wages. Employers frequently pay workers below the minimum wage, and some employers do not pay their workers at all. One group of workers told Human Rights Watch their employer refused to pay for work performed between April 2006 and November 2006. In March 2007, the workers still had not been paid.
  • Employers also routinely deny migrant construction workers legally stipulated contracts, accident and medical insurance, and expose workers to illness and injury through hazardous working conditions.

Adding insult to injury, a dysfunctional government redress system prevents workers from claiming their legally protected rights – those who protest face threats of sometimes deadly violence. In July 2007, hoodlums hired as strike breakers murdered a migrant construction worker at a building site in Guangdong province where the striking workers had remained unpaid for months.

“It’s unacceptable for workers to risk death and injury merely for pursuing their legal right to fair wages paid punctually and in full,” Richardson said. “More empty government rhetoric will only guarantee more risks, more injuries, and more deaths,” Richardson said.

The 2008 Olympic Games certainly have helped to spur the city’s construction boom. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which selected Beijing to host the games, should seek independent certification that all workers employed at Olympic construction sites are being paid lawfully and adequately, in a safe working environment and protected from other work-related abuses. The need for such certification is particularly urgent since the January 2008 admission by the Chinese government that six workers had died in workplace accidents at Olympics venues during the past three years.

In January 2006, the Beijing city government announced that it had fined 12 unidentified companies contracted to build Olympics-related projects for the withholding of wages. While Human Rights Watch obtained no specific information about Olympic venues, consistent abuses reported across other construction projects in Beijing should raise concerns about exploitation on all building sites, including those for the Olympics.

“If the Olympic movement really prides itself on its dedication to ‘fundamental universal ethical principles,’ then the International Olympics Committee must ensure that workers who help build Beijing’s Olympic venues are at least treated fairly and in accordance with Chinese law, and the fundamental international human rights standards that China has assumed and promised its citizens to respect,” Richardson said.

Selected testimony from Chinese migrant workers interviewed for the report

    “I’ve been a migrant worker for more than 10 years, and not one of my employers has ever provided us with insurance.” —One Beijing-based migrant construction worker interviewed by Human Rights Watch (name withheld), January-March 2007.
    “Every day [the work schedule] was different, there was no unified, fixed work [schedule], regardless if it was daytime or late at night, anytime was a work time, [and] sometimes in the middle of the night when we were sleeping, we would have to get up [and work].” —A second Beijing-based migrant construction worker interviewed by Human Rights Watch (name withheld), January-March 2007.
    “[We] workers ended up with less than 20 Yuan (US$2.67) per day, and on top of that we’d be deducted eight Yuan (US$1.07) per day for living costs; how are workers supposed to survive [on such low wages]?” —A third Beijing-based migrant construction worker interviewed by Human Rights Watch (name withheld), January-March 2007.