China - 8 migrant workers publicly sentenced to prison for demanding payment of arrears

A judge of the Sichuan province of Langzhong sentenced eight migrant workers - three women and five men - to between six and eight months of prison. Before reading the verdict, they were lined up in a public square behind placards identifying their individual villages of origin. Police guards flanked each one of them, while rifle-toting sentries stood nearby and no defence lawyer was granted. The eight workers were found guilty of congregating on 16 March 2016 in front of the office of their debtor, a real estate constructor, in order to ask for arrears in their salaries.

The “trial” took place in front of a huge crowd gathered together to receive what is commonly known in China as “an education in the law” consisting of the public condemnation of the indicted and serving as a lesson to citizens. Nonetheless, despite the intention of the authorities, the assembled citizens reacted very differently from the past. They attributed blame to the delinquent employer and forced the website of the Langzhong City People’s Court to remove the photographs of the public trial following collective uproar and indignation. Chinese workers are well aware that wage arrears are a major problem for everyone and protests in this respect are frequent and widespread in the country. For example, earlier in March 2016, thousands of mining workers in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang took to the streets after the governor claimed that none of them were owed back pay, though he eventually admitted he was wrong later.

Wages are supposed to be paid before workers travel home the month before the Lunar New Year holiday, but many contractors still fail to do so, largely because local officials do not care about the inconvenience to workers and are also often in collaboration with the employers. The easiest and fastest way to eradicate the problem is therefore to suppress the conflict and they often condemn workers to prison for demanding the payment of wages, citing alleged obstruction of traffic or disturbance of public order.

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