An Action Research for Construction Peasant-Workers’ Rights in Beijing

Source: CLR News 3/2009 pp.6-15
Reprinted with permission

On a midnight of early June 2009, 10 construction workers left a construction site near the China Agriculture University in Beijing with their luggage. The 9 men and 1 woman came from rural villages in Henan province in the Central China or Guizhou province in the Southwest China. In China, they are known as ‘nongmin gong’ (peasant-workers). According to the national census in 2000, the number of peasant workers in the country reaches 120 million. In 2004, a research report from the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the official trade union centre, estimated that 40 million, or one-third of the peasant-workers were working in the construction industry (ACFTU, 2004).

Workers walked off the construction site where they had worked for around two months with very complicated feelings. They were excited that they just got paid after a struggle lasting for 10 days. They were very hungry as they had not eaten a meal in full after they stopped work on 1st June. Most importantly, they were very fearful of the physical attacks from the son of a subcontractor from Hubei province who they were working for. One of the workers sent a mobile message to a student researcher in Peking University: ‘we are very scared. We have no place to go to. Can you help us?’The student called back the worker to gather together, walk away from the construction site as far as possible and dial ‘110’ [the police hotline] to seek help. However, the workers explained that the police was unhelpful to them and ‘stood on the side of the company’. In this construction site, students have successfully helped six groups of 50 workers to get back their wages since March 2009.

Research and Action for Construction Workers
The student is a member of the voluntary student network. The team is a loose network of students from 13 universities in Beijing named ‘Safety Cap University Student Mobile Service Team’. The history of university students in Beijing assisting construction peasant-workers can be traced back to 1999, when a student society in the name of ‘the Son of Peasants’ was formed in Beijing Normal University. Student activists from this society had a tradition of helping construction workers to ask for unpaid wage from their employers. Students’ involvement in industrial conflict in the construction industry is a special phenomenon in post-socialist China. Workers are denied freedom of association. Most of the migrant workers are unorganized. Even though a workplace trade union is set up, it would be a branch of the official trade union and most likely to be manipulated by the management. Unlike many other countries where the trade union is the first port of call of workers’ rights and interest protection, it is very rare for migrant workers in China to seek help from trade unions. The country’s legal framework for industrial relations tends to protect workers’ individual rather than collective rights. The Labour Law in 1995 protected a wide range of workers’ rights including a minimum wage, an overtime pay and social insurance. However, in the construction industry it is not enforced at all. The 2008 Labour Contract Law further strengthened workers’ legal rights by stating that workers can get double pay if the employer does not sign a labour contract with the employee within one month of the employment. Again, in the construction industry, there is no sign of enforcement. Migrant workers in the construction sector were highlighted as one of the ‘marginal communities’ deserving special concern.

The idea of involving students to service construction workers was revitalized in a research project under China Social Work Research Centre of Peking University and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. From the late 2007, researchers from these two universities conducted intensive fieldwork on construction sites in Beijing. The awful working conditions and abuse in the industry surprised students and their teachers. To provide support to workers and facilitate continual research, a construction workers service centre and a workers’ canteen, named ‘Renjian (the people) - New workers’, were set up in a migrant workers’ settlement village in April 2008. The canteen is run as a social enterprise. Its profit will partially support the service centre. The service centre is acting as a base for social work placement, sociology and anthropology fieldwork, and student voluntary practice. The concept of ‘new workers’ tries to create a new identity for the group who are still understood as ‘peasants’. The name of ‘Renjian called for wider support for the marginal group whose legal rights are highly repressed by a special employment system and social relation. Activities in the centre combine social research with social action.

June is one of the high seasons for workers’ wages demand as some of them have to go back home for agricultural harvest. During the month, while one group of students stayed in Beijing to help workers, another group went to visit workers who returned to rural villages for harvest and to provide legal training for other villagers who are also migrant construction workers. The other routine services of the centre and its attached student network are to visit construction workers’ dormitories. In dormitories, students distribute labour law booklets, teach workers with labour law and labour rights and organize cultural events alongside interviews and observations for research purpose.

The Working Conditions of Chinese Construction Workers
Since late 2007, we paid regular visits to 13 dormitory settlements of 6 construction sites covering 11,900 workers. Following some of the core workers, we visited and delivered labour law and consciousness training in 10 villages in the provinces of Henan and Hebei where we contacted 2000 construction workers. A student campaign group in Hong Kong accused an estate property company of ’10 offences’ (shi zhongzui) for their labour practice in China based on their fieldworks in five Chinese cities (SACOM, 2009). Our intensive fieldwork and active engagement confirmed the findings in this report as general conditions of the building sector:

1. No labour contract
Almost all of the manual construction workers did not have a labour contract with their employers. The main aim of 2008 Labour Contract Law is to promote a formal written labour contact between employer and employee. In the construction sector, the law has little impact. Some companies do ask workers to sign a contract to satisfy the Labour Bureau monitor and strengthen up their own position during labour conflicts. But workers do not keep a copy as requested by the law.

2. Extremely long working hours
The average weekly working hours of workers range from 70 to 90 hours. Normally workers have to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day. A standard working pattern in the industry is 5:30am to 11:30am, an hour lunch break and then 12:30pm to 6:30pm. In busy periods, the daily working hours are as long as 15 to 16 hours.

3. Wage arrears
While the law requests wages to be paid at least on a monthly basis, most of the peasant-workers were paid on an annual basis. This means they can only get pay before they go back home for Chinese New Year (usually during January or February). Usually workers will be ‘prepaid’ (yuzhi) 100 to 1000 yuan (about 10 to 100 Euros) per month for living expenses. This causes a big problem of wage arrears before Chinese New Year or during June and July when some of the workers have to go back home for harvest. In 2007, more than 124,000 completed construction projects in China owed 175.6 billion yuan in unpaid wages to the peasant-workers. This means that every construction project owes 1.4 million yuan (China Daily, 9-July-2007; cited by Pun and Lu, forthcoming b). In 2003, Chinese premier Wenjiabao helping a construction peasant-worker from Sichuan to demand unpaid wages drew much public attention, highlighting the seriousness of the wage arrears problem in the industry.

4. Detrimental living conditions
Workers’ dormitories are all provided by the company. The living environment is extremely simple, dirty, crowded and sometime very noisy. Usually the dormitories are located in the basement of semifinished buildings, abandoned factory estates or some temporary settlements. Sometimes hundreds of workers live in one big hall. Usually 8 to 30 workers occupy one room. This also creates a problem for women workers. The number of women is very limited. There is no special dormitory room for females. Women have to live in a room full of men. Some married couples work on the same site. Their privacy is only ‘secured’ by a thin curtain covering their dorm beds. The companies or contractors run small shops and food service. Workers can pay for meals and daily provisions by vouchers provided by the company. The total cost of the vouchers will be deducted from workers’ salaries. In some cases, the price in the company-run stores is 30% to 50% higher than the normal price. Workers have to depend on the company-run shops t consume as they do not have enough cash. Apart from the concern for wages, the food quality is always amongst workers’ top concerns. Workers do not have tables or chairs to have their meals.

5. Unpaid stoppages
Workers are paid on a daily rate. When work is stopped as a result of bad weather or a lack of water or electricity supply, workers cannot get pay for the day or their wage is deducted by proportion. A special Chinese name, wogong, is designated to this arrangement. Wogong exists also when some companies employ more workers than is basically demanded. It causes some workers to complain of not having enough working days to earn a reasonable income. For the company, no extra cost is needed except the daily wage which is dependent on a real working day. Since the current financial crisis, as the supply in the labour market is abundant, the problem of wogong is getting worse.

6. Low social insurance participation rate
‘How can peasants have social insurance?’ a manager told a student who was helping workers to ask for unpaid wages. The Labour Law clearly requests employers to contribute social insurance for their employees, covering pension, medicine and industrial injury. In reality, like the labour contract, no migrant worker on the construction sites we have visited participates in the social insurance scheme.

7. Serious occupational disease
In 29 March 2009, over 20 students from different universities in Beijing gathered outside a construction site with flowers in their hands. They came to support the daughter of a worker who died in the basement of the site to bargain compensation from the management. The 57-year old worker felt unwell when he was hammering a rock in the afternoon of 22 March. He started to cough at night. The next morning he could not get up for work as he was seriously ill. But he had only 1.35 yuan (1.35 cents in Euro) in his pocket, so there was no way for him to see a doctor. When his two brothers who were also working on the construction site came back to the dormitory at lunch time, he was nearly dead. With strong support from students, his daughter was ‘lucky’ to get a compensation of 64,000 yuan which was usually only 20,000 to 30,000 yuan as told by a manager. Pneumoconiosis, benzene poisoning and eye disease are common occupational diseases in theindustry. 80% of the workers interviewed had some degree of respiratory tract infection and Tinnitus (SACOM, 2009).

8. Lack of vocational training
Before the 1980s, construction workers were employed by stateowned construction companies. Like other state-owned enterprise workers in socialist China, they were holding an ‘iron bowl’ with permanent employment, social welfare and occupational training. Today, almost all manual construction workers are peasant-workers. Little occupational training is provided by the company or the state. For job positions, the common means of acquiring skills is through ‘learning by doing’. Senior workers (dagong, referring to experienced worker) receive a higher pay than junior worker (xiaogong, referring to less experienced worker) of around 30%. A supervisor or contractor judges the skill and pay level of workers. According to the law, workers in some special job positions have to get occupational training and a license. However, many workers in these positions still do not get any formal training and qualification.  Of 30 electricians working for a contractor, only one holds a license.

9. Insufficient safety protection measures
‘The managers wear a safety cap of 20 yuan, but gave us one that only costs 10 yuan,’ a worker complained. It is very common for companies to provide low quality or even no safety cap for the peasant-workers. Some companies deduct the cost of the safety cap from workers’ wages. From interviews we found that some companies encourage workers to put away the safety belt in order to ‘enhance efficiency’. The law requests that the construction company conducts proper safety training for new workers. In reality, the training is just a short briefing from their subcontractor or a safety officer.

10 Illegal Penalty Fine
As mentioned above, the workers’ wage is usually paid on one-year basis. A common argument raised by the company, the contractor and the workers is about the quality of the work. Construction companies usually use the excuse of the low or substandard quality of the finished work to reduce the agreed project fee to their contractor. The deduction will be also passed to workers although they are working on a daily rate. ‘It is an eating man (chiren) place! Even losing a hammer will be fined,’ a brother of the man who died on the construction site complained. He also shared the information that the company charges 10 yuan for a card identifying their dorm bed place (chuangtou ka). In one of the worst cases in Shenyuan, the company posted up two disciplinary rulings. Among the 28 items listed, 24 involved penalty fines of between 10 and 2000 yuan (SACOM, 2009). As soon as a worker is found disobeying the rules, a record will be made and the penalty will be deducted from their wage. The money collected in this wayis paid to the supervisors as‘subsidies’. This practice creates a conflict of interest between rankand- file workers and their supervisors. Chinese migrant workers conjure up the typical image of the sweatshop in the global south. In recent years, workers’ struggles and NGO activism have helped improve working conditions in South China where export-oriented factories cluster, especially in the period from 2004 to 2007 (Chan, 2009; Chan and Pun, 2009). Six years after Premier Wen’s initiative to help construction workers, there is no sign of a significant improvement in the construction industry. The findings of the ACFTU report in 2004 on construction industry, especially the wage arrear problem, are still evidenced in our research from 2007 (ACFTU, 2004).

Barriers of Legal Enforcement in Construction industry

As discussed, the Chinese government has created a legal framework to regulate labour relations based on individual rights. The absence of the rights to organize, collectively bargain and strike remains a fundamental setback for labour policy in China. The interest nexus between capital and local state authorities may also impede the enforcement of labour regulations. However, compared to other industries, the construction industry is still at the lowest end of legal enforcement. For example, the one-year basis of the wage system and the related wage arrear problem cannot be imagined in either the other industries in China or the building industry in other countries. In our analysis, four barriers have impeded the enforcement of labour regulations especially in this industry. To highlight these points, I will come back to the case of the group of workers protesting about unpaid wage that I introduced at the beginning.

1. A multi-constructing system
The group of 10 workers was accompanied by their team leader from Guizhou province. The position of the leader is very vague. There were 21 workers working under his lead. All of these workers were ‘brought’ in by him. A precise Chinese name for this position is daigong (dai means ‘bring’ and gong means ‘worker’). A daigong usually brings in workers from their homeland, but sometimes also takes workers from other provinces. A daigong works with the other workers but also plays a supervisor role. Therefore, in the management of the construction company, he also bears a formal name: banzu chang (team leader). This daigong and his team worked for a subcontractor from Hubei province called xiaobao (small subcontractor). This subcontractor provided labour service to another subcontractor from Hubei province which is called dabao (big subcontractor). The big subcontractor was under a labour service company (laowu gongsi) whose owner is from Jiangsu province. The Jiangsu registered company is an agency providing casual agency workers to the Beijing based building company which is the main contractor of an estate property developer. As usual, the building company does not employ any front-line manual workers. This relation can be shown in the following diagram:

Estate property developer

Construction company

Labour Service Company

Big Subcontractor

Small Subcontractor

Daigong/Team Leader


According to the Labour Law, only a registered body has the legal right to employ workers. For the construction industry, the Construction Law states that only a registered building company or the labour service company can contract for a construction project. In other words, both the big subcontractor and the small subcontractor shown in the diagram have no legal right to employ workers. In reality, a case like this is very common. Workers recognize unregistered subcontractors or even the daigong as their boss. This has created many problems for workers’ solidarity and rights’ protection. Many workers do not understand that it is the labour service company’s responsibility to pay their wage. Even though in this case workers well understood this point, there is no material and organizational base to extend the solidarity. The solidarity base is reduced to only the level of workers working for the same daigong or small subcontractor. In this case, while students successfully helped many groups of workers under different subcontractors to ask for wages, there is no overt material and organizational base for different group to act together.

2. Unfinished proletarianisation
Workers were driven out from their dormitories inside the construction site by the company after paying them wages at 1:00am. They found no place to go after leaving the construction site. In fact, they knew no local people except the student who kindly gave them a name card and some labour law pamphlets. The next morning, all of them went back home by train. Chinese migrant workers are experiencing a process of unfinished proletatianisation (Pun and Lu, forthcoming a), and construction peasant workers are at the lowest end of this process. The socialist regime guaranteed every peasant family a piece of farming land. This allowed peasant workers to separate home from work. There is no slum in Beijing. All of the poor working class have to go back home. Our fieldwork in their home villages found that many construction workers have one or two children working in the factory in coastal China. Construction workers identify themselves as peasants more than their children’s generation. Construction workers such as this group are called ‘seasonal workers’ (jijie gong) as they have to go back home to help the wheat harvest, while those who can stay for one year are called ‘long-term workers’ (chang gong). But either ‘long-term workers’ or ‘seasonal workers’ use ‘returning to their farm at home village’ as an alternative to escape exploitation and abuse. ‘They will never come again,’ workers said when they got back their salary after 10 days of struggle. Considering the high cost of the wage claims, 12 workers in the same team had in fact gone back home. The only way for them to request their wages is to come to Beijing again before the construction project finishes. If workers do not take any action, they will with luck be paid through their team leader or daigong at the end of the year. But no one can guarantee how much they can get. That is why there are so many unsolved disputes at the end of the year. In this case, as the team leader supported workers to claim wages immediately, his relationship with his upstream su contractor broke down; there is no hope for workers to get their wages through their team leader.

3. Lacking external organization support
After the 10 workers got back their wages, their team leader was detained by the subcontractor for 3 days. The small subcontractor accused the team leader of claiming 26,700 yuan from them and only around 15,000 being transferred to workers as living subsidies. The team leader did not understand his rights to refuse this illegal detention. In fact, violence is a common way of resolving labour and business conflicts in construction industry (Pun and Lu, forthcoming b). This comes to the third characteristic of the construction workers. External organization support is extremely insufficient. Compared with factory workers, construction workers are older and so less educated. They stay in the city for a shorter time. As a result, they need more external support from government, trade union and NGO. The inspiration for our determination to set up Renjian in Beijing is that there are very few NGOs in Beijing or even in China specially working for construction workers in spite of their huge numbers and the most detrimental conditions. Most of the labour NGOs in China work for factory workers in South China. NGOs in Beijing have paid less attention to labour rights issues and do not adopt proactive ways of contacting workers, like paying regular visits to their dormitories and doing training in their home villages where hundreds of construction workers gather.

Policy Implications
In the light of this, we are calling for more state, trade union and NGO resources to support construction peasant workers in China. A compulsory direct employment relationship between the workers and the construction companies and a state coordinated vocational training policy are highly desirable. In the short term, the state authorities should use its administrative power to enforce the labour contract in the construction industry. Community-based NGOs can take a very prominent role in supporting construction workers, linking up with other stakeholders like students and consumers. Trade unions should also take an active role in protecting construction workers. But considering that employment relations are highly unstable, in the sense that workers working on a construction site will disperse to many different companies and sites after a construction project is finished, an industry or community based trade union is preferable to the enterprise based one laid down in Chinese Trade Union Law.