GUANGZHOU, Dec. 15 (Xinhua) -- Forty-year-old migrant worker Li Yongfen felt high-spirited after hearing of a construction contractor sentenced to 10 months in jail and fined 20,000 yuan for refusing to pay his workers.
The case rekindled her hope of claiming back 6,000 yuan in overdue wages from her boss, who, apparently to avoid paying up, went missing recently.
Li, who left her poverty-stricken hometown in southwestern Sichuan province for work in the Pearl River Delta in southern Guangdong province, is one of China's 200 million migrant workers, a group for whom unpaid wages are a frequent thorny problem.
Some unpaid workers resort to radical measures. Last month, a photo of a half-naked migrant on the streets of Shenzhen in Guangdong in protest at wage default went viral on the Internet and once again brought the issue of unpaid wages into the spotlight.
Others have threatened suicide or have petitioned in groups in a bid to attract public attention and thus bring pressure to their employers.
As laborers prepare to spend earnings to reunite with families back home over Spring Festival, wage defaulting looks set to rear its ugly head once again.
But there is hope for these unfortunate workers. The Chinese government has vowed to crack down on malicious wage defaults to protect workers' rights and maintain social stability.
Yin Weimin, Minister of Human Resources and Social Security, said last week at a governmental convention that China would prioritize preventing and cleaning up wage defaults before the Spring Festival.
In February this year, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress passed an amendment to the Criminal Law to stipulate that malicious wage default is a crime and employers who intentionally withhold pay face up to seven years in jail.
These developments will come as more good news to Li Yongfen and people like You Lianghai, a union leader at a construction company in Guangdong's capital city of Guangzhou. You says it would usually take as long as one year for unpaid workers to get their overdue wages.
Under stricter government regulations and supervision, most workers can now be paid in full and on time, says You, whose union also helps workers get back their money.
Chen Mei'er, chairperson of another Guangzhou-based construction workers' union, says almost every building site in the district of Liwan has its own union branch.
Established in 2007, the labor union now has over 10,000 members.
Union workers monitor payments and help construction workers get their pay on the site. Also, the union demands companies pay contractors after the construction workers receive their wages.
Their work seems to be taking effect. In the first 10 months of 2011, Guangdong province, with its 26 million migrant workers, saw a 7.8 percent drop in the number of wage disputes as against the same period last year.
Group protests or violence triggered by wage defaults also declined 15.8 percent during the same period year-on-year.
Frequent wage defaults once inspired Liu Guangsheng, a 48-year-old migrant worker from central Hunan province, to give up the construction trade. But, as he noticed the situation improving, he returned to the profession early this year, and even persuaded a few friends to join in.
"My wages are more secure than before, and I can now work in construction without worries," Liu explains.
However, there is still a long way ahead before the long-lasting wage defaulting problem can be eradicated, experts warn. The world's economic downturn has dented the bottom lines of many Chinese companies, which could trigger more wage defaults.
Minister Yin said the challenge still looms large, as the deepening Euro debt crisis weighs on the global economy. It may lead to another round of wage disputes among Chinese companies geared for the export market, which will pose a threat to social stability, he believes.
Apart from companies hit by the economic downturn, some are likely to simply take the crisis as an excuse.
Li Yongfen's employer, a company specializing in electronic components, previously showed no sign of operational difficulties. Its chief fled overnight with 800,000 yuan in early December, according to Li.
Yin said the Chinese government will continue to strike hard on crimes concerning labor and employment. His ministry will soon lead a joint examination into wage defaulting in parts of the country, he added.
The local human resources and social security office in Guangdong also vowed to conduct a thorough probe into labor-intensive industries such as construction, manufacturing and catering ahead of the forthcoming Chinese lunar new year.
Li says she and her 140 co-workers had already had part of their unpaid wages advanced by the local government.
"The law is improving and I look forward to the day when I get all my wages back," she says with newfound optimism.