Catherine Armitage: China’s cowboy capitalists bow to peasant pressure

From The Australian:

In Australia he’d be seen as a canny bush lawyer, but in China Sun Wusheng is little short of a miracle.

The 45-year-old former peasant with only seven years of schooling has become a national celebrity by suing building companies for workers’ unpaid wages – and winning.

The companies that are flattening China’s ancient cities to erect forests of skyscrapers owe their workers about 100billion yuan ($16.13billion) in back pay, according to government estimates.

The workers are usually peasants who seek temporary work in the cities to escape the grinding poverty of the countryside, where the average farm plot is not big enough to support a family.

They can multiply their income by labouring in urban areas, and scores of millions do. In 2003 they sent or carried 370billion yuan back to their villages, accounting for 40 per cent of rural income.

But the migrant workers – uneducated and forbidden by communist China to organise into unions that might challenge the Government – are easily exploited. They typically work 10 or 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for 1000 to 2000 yuan a month. And much of this is chewed up by the cost of work permits, poor food and bad housing in crude crowded dormitories on building sites.

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