An amendment to China’s Criminal Law early last year, which criminalized the non-payment of wages, has allowed police to detain factory bosses and labour contractors who flee owing large numbers of workers hundreds of thousands of yuan in unpaid wages.
On 16 January, police detained the boss of a private business in the Hunan city of Xiangtan who owed 150 employees about 800,000 yuan in total. The same day, a labour contractor who owed some 60 workers around 300,000 yuan in back pay was detained by police in the Pearl River Delta city of Foshan. Another labour contractor in Huaibei, Anhui, was detained about the same time after a dozen or so workers filed a complaint demanding 200,000 yuan in wage arrears.
On 11 January, police tracked down and captured the boss of a clothing factory in Zhuzhou, not far from Xiangtan, who had fled leaving a wage bill of 104,000 yuan for about 20 employees unpaid. Three days earlier, another fugitive, a furniture company boss from Guangzhou who owed 118 workers 560,000 yuan in back pay, was captured several hundred kilometres away in the coastal city of Wuchuan.
And on 6 January, local prosecutors in Wenzhou arrested the boss of a shoe factory who owed 80 employees close to 400,000 yuan in unpaid wages. The boss and his family fled on 13 October 2011 but in mid-December he decided to give himself up. He was detained by police on a bus in Haikou that was bound for Wenzhou.
While the use of the Criminal Law to go after delinquent bosses is a welcome development, and might have some deterrent effect, there is still a political element to the current campaign – showing local authorities in a good light in the run-up to the New Year, when wage arrears disputes are at their height.
For the law to be effective, however, it has to be rigorously enforced all-year-round and not just when it suits local governments to do so. Moreover, it should be noted that invoking the law is in and of itself a reflection of the lack of formal mechanisms at the enterprise level that can help resolve wage arrears and other labour disputes before they escalate to the point where it becomes necessary to involve the police.