February 17, 2017 7:00 pm JST

'Protection of farmers' remains empty slogan in China

Problem of migrant farmworkers' unpaid wages still unsolved

TADANORI YOSHIDA, Nikkei senior staff writer

Beijing Railway Station is congested with people returning home during the Lunar New Year holidays. © AP

TOKYO -- Among the myriad political, social and economic problems facing China, the development of rural villages and agriculture may be the most pressing issue for the government to address.

At a government meeting on Feb. 3, Premier Li Keqiang issued an order to resolve the problem of unpaid wages to migrant farmers. But rather than praising the government for its resolve, the Chinese people should pay attention to the depth of social inequality that still remains.

The Standing Committee of the State Council made the decision on Feb. 3 to tackle the problem of migrant farmers' unpaid wages, calling for tougher crackdowns on companies that refuse to pay. Disciplinary measures, similar to those often adopted by the government in addressing problems such as overcapacity and food safety, include disclosing the names of noncomplying employers and holding local government officials responsible.

The problem of unpaid wages surfaces especially between December and January, as migrant workers prepare to return to their villages for the Lunar New Year holidays. Usually, people purchase gifts to bring home, but discontent grows among those who cannot buy them because their wages were not paid.

The government began a survey of unpaid wages last November and decided to address the issue after the holiday season, suggesting that the problem has been widespread.

The decision does not necessarily mean that the government has at long last begun earnest efforts to solve the problem. Rather, it reveals that the situation has failed to improve no matter how strongly or frequently the government urges employers to comply. In fact, the government already instructed local governments in January 2016 to prevent nonpayment of wages to migrant workers and urged companies to pay up.

There are too many similar cases in China to mention all of them.

No. 1 Central Document

For 2017, China's "No. 1 Central Document," which presents the government's top priority policy issue for each year, remains the promotion of rural villages and agriculture. Though sounding somewhat new due to the adoption of the term "supply-side reform," used by President Xi Jinping, the document merely stresses that the development of rural villages and agriculture is the most important issue for China.

The long document lists more than 30 agenda items that need to be implemented to reach the goal, such as achieving a steep increase in the scale of the livestock industry, shoring up production of forage crops, and improving the quality of agricultural products. Among others is the improvement of living conditions in villages by reducing the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Just how many farmers view the document with positive expectations is an open question, considering that the government has continued to make rural villages and agriculture its top priority for more than 10 years.

Income per capita in cities is nearly three times higher than in rural villages in China, according to government data. Few people who know the differences between the country's world-class cities and its premodern rural villages accept the figure at face value. The disparity is much wider if vested interests with various "gray" sources of income are taken into account.

Migrant workers are in a vulnerable position, and their unpaid wages represent only one of myriad problems in China. Although the government is promoting a shift in China's industrial structure toward services for the sake of economic stability, masses of people will be unable to benefit from the shift if existing problems are left as they are. Seeds of social unrest may germinate sooner or later.

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