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Unpaid Worker’s Desperate Appeal Escalates into a Tragic Killing

Unable to collect back wages and publicly humiliated, a desperate migrant worker unleashes his deadly anger. Who is to blame?

At the age of 17, Wang Bingyu, a peasant from a small mountain village in Kangu County, Gansu Province, went to the nearby city to find a job. He joined the nearly 100 million migrant workers, peasants from across the country, who hope to find a better life in the city. Unfortunately, he struggled and suffered a hard life, being constantly exploited and cheated. He ended up in jail facing the death penalty after killing four people and seriously injuring another in a fit of rage over unpaid wages.
According to Xinhua News Agency, an intermediate people’s court in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region sentenced Wang Bingyu to death on June 29, 2005. Wang later appealed to the Ningxia High People’s Court, but the court has yet to make a decision. Wang is currently detained in Shi Zhui Shan Number One Detention Center in Gansu Province.

The case has received a lot of attention in the press and the Internet and has opened a spirited discussion. In an interview with reporters from Xinhua News Agency in mid-August, Wang talked about his life. Wang lost his mother at the age of six. He lived with his father and a younger brother in a house built of mud, where they shared one bed. Besides attending school, he had to work on the farm and take care of the house and his younger brother. He dropped out of school when he was in fourth grade. His younger brother dropped out when he was only in the second grade.

The area where they live is experiencing a drought; the farmland is barren. As a result, many villagers migrate to the nearby city to earn a living. With such a hard life at home, Wang saw no future in staying, so he was determined to find a better life in the city.

Wang’s first job was in Tianshui City, where he worked at a construction site and earned 7.5 yuan (US$0.93) a day after the meal deduction. Soon his 14-year-old brother joined him and began earning five yuan (US$0.62) a day. They ate the least expensive food, shared a room with dozens of others, and slept on a wooden board. Since then, Wang worked at several other construction sites in the Ningxia area. He also worked in shipping and delivery, peddling around on a tricycle.

He and the other laborers worked at their own risk without workman’s compensation. In the spring of one year, Wang fell off a two-meter tower into a well that was more than seven meters deep. He almost drowned. After his coworkers pulled him out, his boss wouldn’t let him go to the doctor and only gave him a couple cold medicine pills.

From August 2003, Wang started to work for Chen Jiwei, a sub-contractor from Henan Province. Chen had a contract for the heating insulation work at a factory in Ningxia. Wang Binyu and his co-workers had to apply rock wool and iron sheet around steel pipes. Rock wool is a type of chemical that irritates the skin. Working without any protection, Wang and his co-workers often suffered from reactions to the chemical. They worked mostly over 12 hours a day, from 7:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. or longer, as long as there was daylight. The workers were paid a lump sum at the end of the year but were subject to 300 yuan (US$37) deduction in personal bond and 1,000 yuan (US$124) for room and board. Soon, Wang became the team leader and earned 35 yuan (US$4.33) a day.
Even though the labor contract stated that the workers were covered under medical insurance, none of them received any coverage. Wang said last year he spent over 1,000 yuan (US$122) in medical treatment for his stomach illness, but he was not reimbursed. Another co-worker was required to work despite a leg injury but eventually had to quit and return home.

The Wang brothers struggled as hard as they could and managed to send some savings home for adding a few brick rooms to their mud house. Both young men, Wang Binyu, now 28, and his brother, now 26, (earlier it was mentioned that Wang was 17 and his brother was 14) were still unmarried because it costs 20,000 to 30,000 yuan (US$2,440-3,660) to find a wife. (The village girls all leave the village to find a better life.)

In May, Wang’s father urgently needed some money to treat his broken legs. Wang’s health condition was also very poor at the time, so he decided to quit his job and get the wages he had earned for the year, a total of 5,000 yuan (US$619). But all he got was 50 yuan (US$6). He went to the local labor department for a resolution. The person in charge called Chen Jiwei immediately and demanded that he pay Wang the wages he had earned.

On May 11, Wu Xinguo, the foreman of the construction site, promised the labor department that he would pay Wang’s wages within the next five days. However when Wang and his brother returned to their living quarters, they found that their keys had been taken away and they were no longer allowed to sleep there. They went to Wu’s home and asked for money for hotel rooms, but Wu refused to open the door. In the meantime, several co-workers living nearby came to tell the Wang brothers to leave. Some called them "dogs." They slapped the brothers’ faces and kicked them. Wang Bingyu couldn’t stand it anymore. He brought out a folding knife and began stabbing. He killed four people at the scene and seriously injured another. Some bystanders heard him shouting during the attack, "There is no point to live any more…"

Afterwards, Wang’s father came to see him at the detention center. At the sight of his father, Wang felt deep regret for what he had done. What made the whole thing worse was that none of the people who died were responsible for withholding his wages. They were migrant workers just like Wang.

Wang told the reporters, "I don’t have much time left. My father said that he supports my giving interviews. When you interview me and publish the story, more people will pay attention to migrant laborers. When the government officials visit the construction site, they only see the buildings. We work on top of the buildings, and we could fall down dead if we are not careful. Do you know how many migrant workers die when a building is constructed? …. I do not ask much. I just hope that my father and grandparents can have a good life."
After the Wang Bingyu murder case was publicized, there was a tremendous outpouring on the Internet. The general sentiments are overwhelmingly sympathetic toward Wang. Many believe that Wang is a victim himself; the true criminal is the foreman and the system behind him. Some even called for a campaign to "Save Wang Binyu" in the name of justice.

In the meantime, there is a heated debate about whether Wang Binyu should receive the death sentence. Zhou Guangquan, Associate Professor at the Law Department of Qinghua University, stated that Wang should not have resorted to killing and argued that if this case, with such serious consequences, does not result in the death penalty, it will send a dangerous signal and encourage others to follow. Professor Zhou also disagrees with the "self-defense" argument in this case as there was no ground for Wang to kill for revenge.

While some argue from legal, technical terms, Gao Zhicheng, a famous human rights lawyer in China, together with dozens of rights advocates, are urging that Wang Bingyu be saved. Attorney Gao stresses that saving Wang Bingyu is a way to demonstrate that the legal system can still serve justice. When Wang Bingyu was weighing his options, enforcement of the law didn’t seem to be one of them. Wang chose violence because he did not trust the legal system. For failing to perform the role of justice, the legal system and all related departments should bear some responsibility for the tragedy.

Wage disputes involving migrant workers have become common in recent years. Many migrant workers have had no other recourse than desperate measures to receive what is owed them. Some have threatened to jump from the top of the building they helped construct. Others have committed self-immolation.

In 2003, Premier Wen Jiabao personally resolved a wage default case for a woman farmer. However, his action was widely viewed as a political show. No improvements in the wage problems faced by migrant workers followed the Premier’s gesture. No matter how one views the desperate act of Wang Bingyu or the political act of Premier Wen Jiabao, one thing is clear-the law for protecting the rights of migrant workers doesn’t work.

Lukun Yu is a writer based in New York.