A wage dispute in southern Guangdong Province turned violent as hundreds of migrant workers allegedly clashed with riot police, smashed cars and indiscriminately attacked passersby.
Nine people allegedly involved in a violent wage-related dispute have been detained, local police said on Tuesday.
More than 200 migrant workers, natives of Sichuan Province, gathered in front of the township government building of Guxiang in Chaozhou on Monday, urging officials to punish suspects who attacked a Sichuan migrant worker's son with a knife in a wage dispute early this month, Chaozhou Public Security Department said on Tuesday in an online statement.
Protesters smashed three cars and burnt another vehicle during the unrest on Monday night. Nine of them were arrested before they were dispersed by 10:30 pm, local police said.
No casualties were reported.
However, conflicting reports of the incident emerged as Yangcheng Evening News said that protesters destroyed at least 40 cars as of 8 pm Monday, and some indiscriminately attacked drivers and passengers passing through the area. Some Internet users claimed that there had been thousands of protesters.
A video clip on sina.com, purportedly filmed by a witness of the clash in Chaoan county, shows dozens of protesters hurling stones at a police station on Guxiang Street and then being dispersed by riot police. The authenticity of the video could not be verified.
The riot was broadcast live on weibo.com, a microblog website, on Monday night with witnesses posting photos depicting protesters throwing stones at a government building and crushing nearby booths.
Related posts could not be found later and were believed to have been deleted.
The unrest came after a wage dispute occurred in Huayi Ceramics Factory in Chaoan county June 1 when a migrant worker couple from Sichuan Province, accompanied by their son, went to the factory demanding two months of unpaid wages, Chaozhou Television reported. The amount the couple demanded was not known.
The son, surnamed Xiong, suffered cuts to the feet and hands after being attacked by two employees of the factory, after his father argued with the boss and was himself hurt in the forehead, said police who later arrived at the scene and sent the wounded to a local hospital for treatment, Yangcheng Evening News reported.
A Web user suggested on weibo.com that the son had "beaten the boss's father and insulted his wife before the incident turned violent."
Xiong could not be reached on Tuesday.
The boss of the factory, surnamed Su, surrendered himself to local police on Saturday and confessed his crime, while the other two suspects in the attack were also seized Sunday, police said.
The local government was not available for comment on why the detention of the three suspects was still not enough to quell the anger of migrant workers who had gathered outside the government building since Friday, culminating in the violent protests Monday.
Rumors claiming that the three suspects were released after handing over 3,000 to 10,000 yuan to local police circulated on baidu.com, but the information was not yet confirmed by authorities, who vowed to look into the case at a press conference on Tuesday, according to the official statement.
China has witnessed a rise in the number of labor disputes in recent years, especially in regions such as Guangdong, which is clustered with labor-intensive industries.
At least 13 employees working for electronics maker Foxconn in Shenzhen, which is a key manufacturer of iPhones and iPads, committed suicide last year.
Workers at a spare parts plant of Japanese automaker Honda in Foshan staged a strike last May demanding a pay rise of 800 yuan per month.
Lawyer Zhang Zhiqiang, who is also the founder of the Migrant Workers' Friend, an NGO providing legal services to workers, told the Global Times on Tuesday that "as enterprises still struggle to survive the aftermath of the global economic downturn, they resort to exploiting workers more, delaying their wages.
"At the same time, the cost of living in cities is rapidly rising, so workers are shouldering more pressure."
Zhang said when there is a dispute, workers are reluctant or unaware of how to seek government help, as the process usually takes a long time, further adding to their costs.
At the end of 2010, there were 242.23 million migrant workers from rural areas, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security said last month.
Noting that the arrears of wages remain a major source of labor disputes in China, the ministry said labor departments had handled a total of 384,000 cases last year, including delayed payment and illegal use of laborers. The figure was 12.6 percent lower than the previous year, according to official figures.
However, Zhang said although Chinese authorities have been working to improve labor-related laws, the current law is still unable to protect laborers, as many legal entities still represent enterprises' interests, leaving workers at a disadvantage.