That money is one year of my blood, how can you not give it to me ?
— Beijing-based migrant construction worker 
- photo : HRW
Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China, is undergoing an unprecedented transformation. The Chinese government is spending around US$40 billion  to remake the city into a modern symbol of China’s rising international stature and growing economic strength. This investment is transforming Beijing from a traditionally low-rise city of narrow alleys and hutong courtyard homes dating from imperial times to a city of broad avenues lined with newly built skyscrapers and countless building sites. As many have commented, the 2008 Olympics are to be Beijing’s coming-out party.
The engine behind the creation of the new Beijing is the estimated one to two million construction workerswho toil on the city’s building sites. The efforts of that largely invisible army are too often rewarded by wage exploitation resulting from unfair or non-existent contracts and the denial of basic public social services. Workers routinely endure dangerous work environments and lack any safety net, including medical and accident insurance. A dysfunctional government system of redress for workers’ grievances puts those who protest such injustices under threat of sometimes deadly physical violence.
Chinese government authorities are well aware of the abuses migrant construction workers face and have begun to make the necessary policy adjustments in certain areas. A detailed survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) issued in June 2007 and a report issued by the Chinese government’s own State Council in April 2006 pinpoint many of the problems and show how extensive the abuses are. But our research shows that a lack of rigorous implementation of existing policies have created critical policy gaps which leave migrant workers vulnerable to suffer a range of serious human rights abuses.
This report addresses the abusive conditions endured by Beijing’s migrant construction workers, detailing their exploitation by employers and the failure of the Chinese government to effectively address these violations. It draws on interviews with migrant workers, analysis of Chinese government studies not available in English academic research, studies by other international organizations, and published accounts in Chinese domestic and international media.
Chinese labor law provisions apply to both migrant and non-migrant workers. Yet despite vocal government assurances that it recognizes the problems faced by migrant construction workers and repeated official promises of long-term systemic solutions, employers of migrant construction workers still flout legal requirements that those workers be paid each month in-full. Instead, migrant construction workers must routinely wait until the end of the year to receive a pay packet that is almost invariably smaller than originally agreed. In some instances, they do not get paid at all.
Migrant workers in China, and construction workers in particular, are also vulnerable to high rates of injury and death in working environments in which the majority of employers fail to pay legally-required medical and accident insurance.
While China’s Labor Law stipulates that there is medical and accident insurance for all workers, China’s official household registration system, or hukou, specifically excludes workers who are not originally from Beijing from public social welfare benefits including medical care. China’s government has yet to clarify which of those laws take precedence in determining the allocation of public social welfare benefits, including medical care, compounding the risks and potential financially ruinous expenses of on-the-job accidents for migrant construction workers.
Finally, on-site housing provided by employers to migrant construction workers is of poor quality, overcrowded and often lacks washing facilities. Workers say the quantity of food which employers provide in exchange for daily wage deductions of seven to 10 Yuan (US$0.93 to US$1.33) is inadequate for their needs and often inedible.
A series of often insurmountable obstacles prevent many workers from seeking redress for these violations through legal channels. Migrant construction workers who are victims of wage exploitation and other abuses are entitled to redress, a process that begins with mediation, moves to arbitration if mediation is unsuccessful, and then concludes with lawsuits against employers should arbitration fail. In practice, however, most workers are stymied in their efforts to pursue such redress due to their lack of legal residency status in Beijing, lack of contractual proof of their claims, or both. Workers seeking government assistance to obtain their unpaid wages complain of sluggish bureaucracy, high legal costs, and long waits.
Migrant construction workers in Beijing, where the ratio of available jobs is usually outstripped by the number of job-seekers constantly flowing in from the countryside, are faced with the choice of moving to new construction sites where conditions will likely be similar, or continuing to work for an exploitative employer in the hopes that wages will eventually be paid. The alternative—to quit their jobs unpaid and return to the poverty of the countryside—is unthinkable for the majority of such workers as their families rely on them to return with desperately-needed cash to pay otherwise unaffordable costs such as medical expenses and their children’s tuition fees.
China’s labor laws forbid workers to form and join independent unions or conduct collective bargaining outside the state-affiliated All-China Free Trade Union (ACFTU). The vast majority of migrant construction workers are not members of the ACFTU due to the ACFTU’s traditional focus on recruiting non-migrant workers to fill its ranks. Research indicates that the ACFTU has failed to adequately address the problems of migrant construction workers. In face of such constraints, migrant construction workers often respond with protests or strike actions which put them at risk of harassment and arrest by police or violent retribution by hoodlums hired by the workers’ employers. In July 2007 a migrant construction worker was murdered by a group of dozens of hoodlums hired as strike breakers at a building site in Guangdong province where striking workers had gone unpaid for four months.
The Chinese government has publicly recognized the plight of migrant construction workers who are cheated or face delayed payment of their wages. Senior policymakers have made annual high-profile appeals for employers to end such abuses. The central government has also produced recommendations for long-term resolution of the problem based on the findings of several research reports by institutions including the State Council, China’s cabinet. But the failure to enforce key provisions of China’s Labor Law designed to protect workers from wage and other forms of exploitation by their employers renders those recommendations and rhetoric meaningless.
The Chinese government should back up its recognition of the rampant wage exploitation and other abuses of migrant construction workers through the following measures :
- Enforcing existing rules, including the existing Labor Law of the People’s Republic of China and new Labor Contract Law of the People’s Republic of China which went into effect on January 1, 2008, to ensure victims are fairly compensated and abusers are punished.
- Blacklisting firms guilty of wage exploitation and other abuses from tendering for state-financed construction projects.
- Targeting executives of companies found guilty of embezzling migrant construction workers’ wages with meaningful legal penalties designed to provide a deterrent effect for the industry.
- Imposing minimum, enforceable standards for workers safety, housing and food and institute a system of random spot checks to ensure that those standards are met.
- Dropping an official prohibition against the formation of independent trade unions and ratify international instruments protecting workers’ rights, including those of migrants.
While this report does not focus on Olympics building sites per se—access to such sites is strictly controlled, making on-site research by Human Rights Watch impossible—it is clear that Olympics sites are plagued by the same problems addressed here.
In January 2006, the Beijing city government announced that it had fined 12 unidentified companies contracted to build Olympics-related projects for withholding wages to their workers.  While we have no specific information about those Olympic venues, the consistency of abuses across other sites in Beijing, regardless of the location, type and size of project, should raise concerns about Olympic sites.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), whose selection of Beijing in 2001 to host the 2008 Olympic Games has helped to spur the construction boom, should ensure that migrant construction workers employed on Olympics-related projects are treated in accordance with Chinese law and thus paid in a fair and timely manner. The IOC should :
- Ensure that workers on Olympic venue projects are protected by their employer’s implementation of legally-stipulated workplace safety standards and receive adequate housing and food from their employer.
- Seek independent certification that all workers employed to construct venues for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing have not been the victims of wage exploitation, inadequate safety standards and other abuses. This certification is particularly urgent after the Chinese government in January 2008 admitted that six workers had been killed in workplace accidents at Olympic venues over the past three years just days after the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games had denied media reports of at least 10 any such fatalities in the same period. 
If the IOC fails to act, spectators at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing should be made aware that the venues in which they are watching the Games may have been built by workers who were mistreated, never paid or paid late for their labors, or faced dangerous and unsanitary conditions, with tragic consequences for some. Spectators should also know that the IOC never made a serious effort to ensure more humane treatment for such workers.