Gangnam style, angry-bird cosplay, Yuanfang style, or just streaking, Chinese migrant workers struggle to claim unpaid wages by performing arts


Chinese Art  Updated:Sat, Feb 2, 2013 08:55 AM   By Bernd Chang


A new but sad story is unfolding across China. With Spring Festival approaching, Chinese migrant workers have taken to the performing arts - not for recreation but for claiming their unpaid wages.

Spring Festival is around the corner and it's time for family reunions. However, many home-going migrant workers have more worrying than happiness. After a year of hardworking, a great number of them find they may have to come back home that is usually hundred miles away with empty hands.

The reason is simple but the problem has been rampant for decades: bosses don’t want to pay them on full scale.

But for migrant workers, getting back their unpaid salary is a tough job in a country where independent labor union is not allowed to exist.

Besides the traditional way of claiming unpaid wages through mass protest, threatening to jump from tall buildings, the younger generation of Chinese migrant workers find another way: perform arts.

A group of construction workers in Wuhan launched an unusual type of protest against unpaid wages by performing a Gangnam Style dance outside the nightclub that they had built on January 21, 2013.

In Xi'an, Shaanxi province, several representative migrant workers dressed up as ancient officials to seek their collective dues of about 4 million yuan ($642,764) on January 15, 2013.

Rural migrant workers dressed as cartoon characters protest outside China National Radio in Beijing demanding 280,000 yuan ($45,000) in salary they claim has not been paid. The five workers, representing 31 people who work at different companies in Hebei, dressed as Angry Birds, Donald Duck, Garfield and the Chinese God of Wealth in the hope of drawing attention to their cause, Jan 31, 2013.

Performing arts and doing something bizarre sometimes are the only way to draw attention to their problems. Younger workers are more media-savvy and know that they are more likely to succeed if they turned to such forms of publicity.

Migrant workers are resorting to such methods also because society, in general, has become insensitive to the rising number of cases of their fellow workers' threatening to jump from tall buildings in a desperate bid to get their hard-earned money.

Most of the wage default cases take place in the construction industry. Different from other industries that pay employees every month, employers in the construction industry more often than not pay their employees after a project is completed (or after one full year).

Sub-contracting is another reason why employers default on wages in the construction industry. One of the main problems in the construction industry is that one contractor sub-contracts a project to a sub-contractor, who then sub-contracts it to another to make quick money. It's not uncommon to see half a dozen sub-contractors in one project, which creates shortage of finance. And being at the bottom of the finance chain, migrant workers are the last to get paid.

Worse, if one of the sub-contractors runs away or defaults on wages, migrant workers don't know who they should turn to get their wages. This makes migrant workers in the construction industry the most vulnerable section of the country's workforce.

China is not lack of laws prohibiting employers from not paying the employees, but the enforcement of the laws are weak. Tuesday January 22, 2013, China's Supreme Court just issued a judicial explanation, stipulating that people who maliciously overdue employee's wages may face serious punishment, the highest may be up to 7 years imprisonment. The effect of the new explanation is yet to see.

Spring Festival is the most important Chinese traditional festival that will begin on February 9, the new years eve and Feb. 10, the start of Chinese lunar New Year of Snake for this year.
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