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Alexander Nasr

A New Way for Chinese Migrant Workers to Collect Back Pay: Go Viral on the Web

Workers in Shanghai hauling bricks. (nateluzod/Flickr)

Millions of Chinese migrant workers fail to get paid for their work each year, in spite of ongoing government efforts to increase official monitoring of labor relations in the country. For some, however, attracting media attention and sympathy from China’s online community has proven to be an effective method of pressuring errant employers into coughing up outstanding wages.

According to official statistics — which many regard as highly subjective — Chinese employers withheld over 2 million migrant workers’ wages in 2011. Each year, the number of such cases surges with the approach of the Spring Festival holiday, when migrant workers, young and old, prepare to return home to their families with the year’s wages in hand. Workers who don’t get paid are often forced to resort to bizarre antics to try to attract media attention, with the hope of pressuring local governments into addressing their complaints.

Gangnam style, meet social justice

After failed attempts to reason with his employer, for example, a contractor in Wuhan decided to upload a video appeal to the Chinese blogosphere on January 21. He and some of his crew smiled shyly as they muddled through a subdued rendition of Gangnam Style, while proclaiming, “Pay me my wages so I can go home and celebrate the Spring Festival!”

After a week of exposure on China’s news and in the blogosphere, the crew of about 40 workers was paid 206,000 RMB (about US$33,000) in outstanding wages, in what state news agency China Daily described as “the coordination of government departments, which noted the wide media coverage.”

Another group of migrant workers who failed to get paid issued a mock foreign ministry statement condemning the “dishonorable actions” of their employers and the local government who failed to protect them, and eventually got their case referred to the Supreme People’s Court. But this only happened after their video appeal received media attention and went viral on China’s Internet last October.

Getting paid, one way or another

Since successfully getting his outstanding pay in 2007 — which he accomplished by threatening to jump off a building — erstwhile laborer Zhang Jinhe has become a sought-after resource for migrant workers whose employers refuse to pay. In a recent interview with China Central Television (CCTV), Mr. Zhang stated that he sometimes gets multiple calls for help per day, and has assisted in the recovery of more than 7 million RMB (about US$1.1 million) in outstanding wages since 2007.

“When I can attract media attention to a case,” he told CCTV, “I have a success rate of more than 95% at recovering withheld wages.”

China’s government has attempted to remedy the issue by increasing labor oversight and upping punishments for employers who illegally withhold wages. But millions of migrant workers continue to struggle to get paid due to what Chinese news agency Xinhua recently referred to as “systemic loopholes and inadequate implementation.” An employee for a labor education board, for example, was recently caught on camera yelling at a group of migrant workers who came to complain about not receiving their wages, to “go tell the government, not us.”

China’s blogosphere as labor’s ally

Campaigns by unpaid migrant workers to garner media attention for their plight have also sparked discussion on China’s Twitter-like microblog platform Sina Weibo, where many users express admiration for the courage and creativity of those migrant workers who speak out. “Now that’s talent,” @尖兵刺探 commented in response to the mock foreign ministry statement. User @木羊向前冲 wrote, “I hope that comrade doesn’t get arrested.”

Other web users point the finger at their government, decrying the fact that migrant workers are forced to resort to such antics just to get their meager wages. @紫儿violet lamented, “Migrant workers have to resort to methods like these to get paid. Oh, government, you’ve disappointed us.” @糳爱也疯狂 wrote, “That’s just the way life is for us pimin [a slang word meaning ‘nobodies’].”

As Chinese lunar new year approaches, it is customary to post auspicious Chinese characters on the wall to invite good fortune in the coming year. When it comes to a boss who won’t pay, however, posting a video appeal to the blogosphere might bring more luck.

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Alexander Nasr

Alexander Nasr studies International Relations with a focus on China. His interests include China-Central Asia relations, Chinese political discourse, and the effect that new media has on policy.
  • China Newz

    Are there unions in China? Since they are going through an industrial revolution of sorts, I wonder why these migrant workers aren’t getting more protection from these contractors that exploit them for their cheap wages.