Getting paid in China a matter of life and death

GUANGZHOU, China — Yao Xinde sat dazed on the roof of the student dormitory he helped build, gazing into the dark sky with his legs dangling over the edge of the 10-story building. It was a cold night, and he shivered as the wind cut through his thin black jacket. On the ground below, a large crowd gathered to see if he would jump.

For six frustrating months, Yao had been trying to get one of this southern Chinese city's largest and best-connected construction firms to pay him and his crew of 80 workers for fitting the interior of the peach-tiled dorm. Now, the 40-year-old foreman and a colleague were threatening to throw themselves off the building if they didn't get their money.

Police arrived quickly, followed by ambulances and emergency workers who unfolded a large net, witnesses said. Two tense hours later, officers accompanied one of the firm's managers to the roof with a package of cash wrapped in newsprint. Police passed the money to Yao and his friend, then pulled them to safety.

"There was no other way to get what the company owed us," Yao explained a few weeks later, chain-smoking during an interview in his cramped, run-down apartment as his young son dozed nearby. "At the time, I was so exhausted and numb, I was really ready to die."

Suicide threats by workers seeking to collect unpaid wages have become increasingly common in many parts of China, a telling sign of the frustrations felt by the nation's working class as the government presses ahead with efforts to build a market economy while limiting political reform.

The phenomenon is concentrated largely among the nearly 200 million workers who have left China's impoverished countryside for jobs in the cities, where they are treated as second-class citizens. It is most pronounced in the winter weeks before the Lunar New Year (Feb. 1 this year), when these laborers collect their earnings and migrate en masse to their villages.

Before the holiday, local Chinese newspapers carried several reports about workers "treating their lives lightly" in disputes over wage arrears, sometimes with photos of men perched precariously on towering construction cranes.

In central Hubei province, one worker spent six hours threatening to leap from a crane before getting his money. In eastern Shandong province, another set himself on fire.

Because most such incidents go unreported by China's state-run media, it is difficult to say how often they occur or how most are resolved. But one Chinese labor researcher who has studied the subject estimates that at least 100 migrant workers, most in construction, threaten to kill themselves over unpaid wages each year in just the Pearl River Delta, a manufacturing region near Hong Kong.

These suicide threats are acts of desperation as much as depression, made by men and women who have concluded that China's courts, trade unions and government agencies are unable or unwilling to help them. These institutions are underfunded and understaffed, and often controlled by party officials who have close ties with local employers.

"These workers know the official channels don't work well," said the labor researcher, who asked not to be identified. "But as soon as they threaten to jump, they get attention. And in many cases, they get some money."

The problem is serious enough that police in many Chinese cities have adopted a policy of jailing for up to two weeks workers who threaten to commit suicide, regardless of whether their labor grievances are justified.

The central government has also acknowledged the difficulties that migrant workers face, and last month ordered localities to step up efforts to protect workers' rights and ensure that employers pay wages on time. But it is unclear whether local officials who depend on these businesses for taxes and bribes will respond.