China's Migrant Construction Workers Want Their Late Paycheck—and a Real Contract

Migrant workers in Beijing Photographer: Natalie Behring/Bloomberg

China’s millions of migrant construction workers are building the country’s new highways, stadiums, shopping malls, and rail lines. They often get little in return—sometimes not even their paychecks.

A new survey of 4,329 construction workers by two Chinese nonprofits, the Beijing Practitioner Cultural Development & Research Center for Migrant Workers and iLabor, found that only 5 percent of migrant laborers are offered work contracts. Most take ad hoc jobs, relying on the word of site managers about when and how much they will be paid. The survey documented at least 138 cases over seven years of companies failing to pay any workers on a site.

Zhang Kejian has worked as a construction laborer for 14 years. Every year he has been on the job, he’s had to contend with late or unpaid wages, as he told Caixin magazine. “I hope our society can be aware of what we’re going through,” he said, “and help us with a contract instead of making us slaves of our bosses.”

According to the Hong Kong-based nonprofit China Labor Bulletin, the frequency of strikes and mass actions involving construction workers in China is rising quickly. “The well-documented slump in China’s property market is the main driving force behind the flood of protests,” the watchdog group explained in a recent report. “Developers are saddled with declining sales, weaker credit availability and continued pressure from local governments to buy land. In these situations, it is the construction workers who are always the last to be paid.”

In March, 21 construction workers who sought to speak with the management of a state-owned railway company about unpaid wages “were attacked by thugs employed by the developer and one was killed,” according to Caixin.

Nearly a third of the construction workers surveyed by the two nonprofit groups said they had been harassed or threatened with violence when they attempted to collect unpaid wages for work already done.