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December 14, 2010

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'Forgotten' blaze workers' cash fight

MIGRANT worker Yan Gaoyi did not even bother to count the 500 yuan (US$75.15) handed to him before he stuffed it into his wallet. Then he simply picked up his umbrella and stepped out into the Shanghai rain.

"It's all I get," said the 45-year-old scaffolder afterwards.

A native of southwest China's Sichuan Province, on November 15 Yan was working on the 28-floor apartment block on Jiaozhou Road that went up in flames in a tragedy that shocked the city.

Thankful at having survived the inferno in Jing'an District that claimed 58 lives, including three workers, and left 71 people injured, Yan is now faced with a more mundane concern - money.

Some 20 migrant workers like Yan went to the project's main contractor yesterday morning, demanding their salaries be paid, almost one month after the flames were extinguished.

By coincidence, the Chinese government reiterated yesterday that the salaries of migrant workers across the country should not be in arrears at the end of the Chinese year - a time when migrants traditionally travel home with cash for their families.

But with managers of the construction companies involved in the Jiaozhou Road blaze arrested and their businesses in limbo, the workers found no one to pay them. "We've been forgotten," said angry migrants.

Around 50 men are owed around 5,000 yuan to 6,000 yuan each.

Jing'an Construction Group was the general contractor for the renovation project at the high-rise. It subcontracted the project to its subsidiary, Shanghai Jiayi Building Decoration Engineering Co, which hired the migrant workers.

Jiayi provided yesterday's hardship payment.

Hao Shaoyou, 32, leader of the workers, was responsible for handing out 500 yuan to each man.

"I almost had to beg even for this money," said Hao, his faced etched with grime and worry.

"My uncle has been filled with anxiety every day for the past month," said Hao's 22-year-old nephew, a fellow worker.

As Hao arranged for his nephew and workers like Yan to come to work on the building, he feels responsible for their unpaid wages. Most of the scaffolders are relatives or fellow Sichuan natives.

Jing'an Construction Group representatives told the group to go to Jiayi for their money. One worker muttered: "How can we get a company that is not operating to pay us?"

It is said that only a janitor is left working at Jiayi's office.

The group were told to wait for more information today.

Hao went to the scene of the blaze yesterday afternoon, but was stopped from entering. He was trying to discover whether their mopeds they left beneath the block are still there.

For some of the workers, the blaze has left not only terrible memories but also physical scars. "It still hurts when I'm eating," said a worker, surnamed Wan, whose windpipe was cut in an emergency operation.

Other workers, waiting in a meeting room, listened in silence.

"He cried!" someone suddenly shouted, pointing at a long-haired young man beside Wan. The close-knit group burst out laughing, but without meaning offense. They knew the young man had been on the burning building's roof for two hours.

After receiving the 500 yuan, the men disappeared into the rain. "Don't forget to tell them get my moped back," Yan yelled to Hao as they left.


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