Imagine getting paid in what you produce. That is the reality for nearly two dozen men working in a Jiangxi province factory this week. Now the workers have to figure out what to do with 290,000 freshly kilned bricks, Xinhua reports. Their story has set off a heated online conversation in China about workers rights and the country's teaming 'floating population'.
The brick-makers' story begins outside of Jiangxi's capital, Nanchang, at the Song Family Brick Factory (宋家砖场). There the workers pressed and dried countless bricks each morning and then loaded them onto trucks for shipment to construction sites. There was only one catch — the pay was sporadic. Then the money dried up entirely in September 2017.
The brick factory shut down the next month, the owners citing "tens of thousands in unpaid electric bills" as the cause. Most laborers departed immediately in search of other jobs, but they left behind three co-workers — all of them from Yunnan's impoverished Zhaotong prefecture — to collect and distribute their combined back wages.
In total, the factory workers are owed 90,000 yuan (US$14,000), but the brickyard owners refused to pay. At this point, a reporter from Xinhua's Nanchang branch named Lai Xing (赖星) began researching the story, eventually recommending the workers sue their bosses.
After a brief civil hearing, in which it became clear the factory owners had no cash with which to pay the back salaries, a Nanchang court ruled remuneration should be handled in bricks — 290,000 of them. The value of the bricks is 81,200 yuan, and the court is still negotiating how to recoup the remaining 8,800 yuan owed to workers. Meanwhile, the former factory employees are reportedly having a difficult time converting their newfound 'wealth' into actual money.
The story has gone viral in China as people express frustration over the proliferation and commonality of similar news reports in which migrant workers — referred to in Chinese as the 'floating population' (流动人口) — are often badly mistreated and underpaid. According to a related BBC report, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions helped "more than five million migrant workers in China receive unpaid wages totaling 30 billion yuan [US$4.7 billion] in the last five years".
If recent trends continue, the recurrence of such stories may increase dramatically. China currently has an estimated floating population of 247 million, according to statistics compiled by the National Health and Family Planning Commission. Many of them work far from their places of birth and without proper registration papers, meaning they often cannot legally buy homes or send their children to public schools. The number of people internally migrating in search of work in China is expected to grow by 18 percent — or 44 million souls — over the next two years.
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