DALI, Yunnan, Aug. 19 (Xinhua) -- A group of 13 children drew widespread attention in China last week by helping their parents claim wages held in arrears.
The children, the youngest of whom was five, stood in a line in downtown Dali, a major tourist destination of southwest China's Yunnan Province, Tuesday, holding posters that demanded immediate payment of their parents' overdue wages.
Their parents are all migrant construction workers at a development project in downtown Dali. Their wages have been held in arrears for six years.
"I'm Yu Xian. I want milk and cakes. Please pay my parents their wages," read a poster held by a 5-year-old boy.
Yu, from Qujing city of Yunnan, said his father had worked for many years in Dali. "He hasn't been home for a long time. I want him to get paid so that I can go to school," he said.
Five of the young petitioners have been newly admitted to college and are in dire need of money to cover their tuition.
"I've come to help my father claim his wages because my college tuition is a headache for the whole family," said Liu Qiang, a teenage girl from the southwestern Chongqing Municipality.
Liu has been admitted to Kunming University of Science and Technology in Yunnan's provincial capital and needs the money to pay her tuition in less than two weeks.
Delayed payment of wages even broke up some migrants' families.
Wu Fan, 8, said his parents divorced after his father failed to mail home any money for years. "My mom was certain he had squandered all the money gambling or taking drugs."
The plight of the children and their families caught widespread attention in the ancient city of Dali, which is always packed with tourists during the summer holidays.
Photos of the scene taken by tourists were posted online and triggered another outcry for migrants' rights, which has been a permanent issue in China over the past decade.
While the Internet users almost unanimously blamed the "profit-driven employer" for "deliberately holding the workers' wages in arrears", Xinhua reporters found the wage dispute was a result of project management loopholes in the real estate sector and the victims were victims in a larger-scale economic dispute.
The developer, Yunnan Guangsha Real Estate Co. Ltd., reached a deal with the local government in 2006 to build a complex composing holiday resort, department stores and exhibition hall in Dali at the cost of 97 million yuan (15.26 million U.S. dollars).
The project, contracted to a major construction group in Kunming but later subcontracted to "Golden Carpenter", a smaller firm, entered a dead end after the boss of Guangsha Real Estate was arrested in 2009 on suspicion of fraud.
Last year, Guangsha was taken over by a local tourism company in Dali, but more than 21 million yuan of construction costs due to be remitted through the prime contractor to Golden Carpenter were unpaid, including 17 million yuan of wages for the workers, said Gao Zhonghan, executive of Golden Carpenter.
After the children joined their parents' petition for pay, the Dali city government demanded the tourism company to settle the issue.
The company, in response, remitted 3 million yuan Saturday to the prime contractor, whose management promised to guarantee the workers get paid in full.
"Such dead-end projects are not rare in China, but not all workers are lucky enough to get paid eventually," said an Internet user who gave only his screen name as "wind in desert."
According to a new rule set by the Yunnan provincial government last year, all construction companies should deposit at least 10 percent of their construction costs into their bank accounts as a reserve fund for the workers' wages. This was to ensure all the workers get paid in time by the bank.
"But it takes time for all construction companies to follow the rule and for the migrants to get paid," said a project contractor in Kunming, who gave only his family name as Zhang.
Zhang said several provinces, including Shanxi and Henan, have moved to blacklist contractors that were notorious for delaying payments. "But when a project is subcontracted again and again, it is hard to track the root of the dispute."