The Sub-Contractor Knelt Down In Front Of Us

(Southern Weekend)  The Sub-Contractor Knelt Down In Front Of Us.  By Wei Zuwei (韦祖伟).  February 8, 2007.

[in translation]

This is the end of the Chinese year again.  The migrant workers are demanding their wages again.  The sub-contractors are on the run again "with the money."  This reminds me of sub-contractor Wang Ruifeng, and how he knelt in front of us.

It was the end of year 2004.  I was working for another newspaper.  At the time, my newspaper together with five other newspapers were working with the Labor Supervisory Department to obtain back wages for migrant workers.  During that period, we were dealing every day with at least five groups of migrant workers who had not gotten paid.

I remembered that on a certain Thursday afternoon, a group of emotionally aroused and desperate migrant workers came to our newspaper.  Their leader Wang Ruiping said that they had worked at a certain worksite for almost three years without getting paid a cent.  The sub-contractor was someone from their own village named Wang Ruifeng, who could never be reached by telephone.  During the conversation, one migrant laborer said, "If we can't get paid, he better not expect to live."  We got the migrant laborers to calm down while we tried to figure out how to locate this Wang Ruifeng person.

Then came an amazing coincidence.  Early Friday morning, the sub-contractor Wang Ruifeng actually called our office.  In the conversation, he begged us to help him to obtain payment.  We asked him to come down to the office.  He said that he was afraid of encountering some of the migrant laborers to whom he owed money.  In other words, the sub-contractor Wang Ruifeng was afraid of being beaten up.  So I acceded to his request and met him in a public park.

When I saw Wang Ruifeng, his wife was also with him.  His wife said with grave concern: "The brothers who are after him for the back wages are really vicious."  She was concerned that something might happen to her husband.  For the last two years, she went with her husband wherever he went.

Wang Ruifeng then opened the small bag that he carried with him.  Inside were some samples of concrete.  He said: "At our worksite, a lot of the work was like this.  The concrete simply did not meet the standards.  You can say that this was a sub-standard 'tofu-residue' construction project.  But the big boss managed to find a way to pass inspection.  He took the money and ran."

Sub-contractor Wang Ruifeng told me: "At first, I took on a project for more than 200,000 RMB.  The big boss gave me less than 100,000 RMB.  It is not that I want to rip my brothers off for the money.  I just don't have the money.  In order to pay them, I had to borrow more than 20,000 RMB already.  The brothers showed up on Chinese New Year's eve at my home to ask for their money.  I didn't even dare go home the past few years."

From his story, I understood the general outline: Wang Ruifeng was the bottom link in the chain of sub-contracting.  I promised Wang Ruifeng that I would contact the other five media outlets as well as the Labor Supervisory Department and then we would go to the contractor together.

On Monday, the contractor's deputy manager Mr. Chen met us.  Wang Ruifeng's contract with the contractor was up to standard, so that the only excuse was that the company had no money and that they would pay up when they had the money.  Mr. Luo from the Labor Supervisory Department had probably encountered this situation often enough and so he systematically proceeded ahead.  It was not certain whether Mr. Luo was good with this work, or whether our numbers were overwhelming, Mr. Chen ended up promising that he would pay up as soon as possible.  He said that he did not have that much money, so he can only signed a promissory note.  We discussed among ourselves, and we let Mr. Chen write a note that promised payment within one week.

During this week, Wang Ruiping called us to say that the brothers who had not been paid were going to show up at the contractor's office unless payment was made.  I told him that the other party had signed a promissory note to pay within one week.  "If you act in haste, the matter may spin out of control."  So the migrant workers put aside their idea of causing an incident.

But as long as Wang Ruifeng did not get paid, he was worried.  He kept calling me to tell me about his worries.  I tried to comfort him as best as I can: "As long as the Labor Supervisory Department is involved, that Chen person would not dare renege."

One week later, that Chen person turned out to be a deadbeat.  Wang Ruifeng went as arranged to get his money but he did not get anything.  When I got his call, I was infuriated.  I immediately called the reporters at the other five media outlets as well as Mr. Luo.  We were all mad as hell, and we met and went together to the contractor's office.

When we got there, we all got in our words as if this was our own business.  Because our collective attitude probably stunned Mr. Chen, he did not say a word for about ten minutes.  Mr. Luo also brought his lawyer, who spoke from the viewpoints of the law as well as the high level of attention that the government was paying towards the issue of back wages owed to migrant laborers.   Mr. Chen perhaps got the idea and he wrote out a check.

When Wang Ruifeng received the check, he was very happy.  He immediately went back to his rented home to pack and he was ready to return to his hometown to make sure that his kinsfolk would receive their back wages.  When we saw how delighted he was, we the reporters were relieved.

Wang Ruifeng did not go to cash the check that day because there was no train back to the county city that afternoon.  When he went there to get the money the next day, the bank worker told him: there was no money in the account!

Wang Ruifeng was stunned!  He immediately called me to inform me about the development.  So I called the reporters at the five other media outlets as well as Mr. Luo . On the way to the contractor's office, we reached a consensus: We will not give up until Wang Ruifeng got paid.

Mr. Chen apparently did not expect that the reporters would be so determined in getting the back wages on behalf of Wang Ruifeng.  He offered an explanation as to why there was no money in the account: the company had switched accounts without telling him.  We did not care about this lame excuse.  We just told him that if he tried to pull another trick this time, our report will be ever more powerful and it will affect the company's chance of obtaining any future project bids.

Mr. Chen had to go and get a check from his company's financial affairs office.  Based upon the previous lesson, we demanded that Mr. Chen accompany us to the bank to withdraw the money.

In consideration that the amount of the money was sizeable, we did not let Wang Ruifeng withdraw cash.  Instead, we asked for the money to be transferred to a new account which he can access in the county city.  When our group walked out of the front door of the bank, the sub-contractor Wang Ruifeng suddenly told us with tears flowing down his face: "I can finally face up to my kinsfolk!"  Before he finished saying that, he flopped right in front of us on his knees and he said: "I can finally go home to spend the Lunar New Year!"

At that moment, I felt strong sensations in my eyes and nose ...