All around the world, essential service workers are being recognized as heroes for helping to keep economies going amid the pandemic, but not so in China.
Leishenshan, a 1,600-bed emergency field hospital in Wuhan, China’s outbreak ground zero, was built in a record time of fewer than two weeks, thanks to tens of thousands of construction workers who risked their lives toiling on it day and night.
No sooner than the hospital completed construction, however, these workers found themselves outcasts speedily driven out of the city by force, with many unable to secure their basic salary.
Zhang Xiongjun, a scaffold worker from Guangzhou, was one such example. He wrote about his harrowing experience on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo.
After construction at Leishenshan was completed, the workers were quarantined, with some like him then “escorted out like prisoners” to nearby Hunan province, Zhang said. Zhang was given no contract and 500 yuan ($70.9) of cash for each day he worked. Upon speaking to fellow construction workers, he discovered that he was only paid a fraction of what he was entitled to.
On April 8, Zhang and the group returned to Wuhan to demand that the construction company, China Construction Third Engineering Bureau, give them full pay.
They drove to the provincial petition office located in Wuhan and planned to lodged complaints with government authorities about their compensation. But before they were able to, around two dozen people from the China Construction Third Engineering Bureau surrounded them and ordered them to squat down on the ground.
Zhang said he wasn’t sure how the company caught wind of their plans, but for the next nine hours, they intimidated Zhang and his group, denying them access to meals or water. One person fainted under the scorching sun.
The company pressured them to sign a letter promising to never mention anything about the incident or their involvement in building Leishenshan. Company staff also demanded that they erase any photos or videos from their phones that proved they worked on Leishenshan. They were ordered to leave Wuhan.
Because the group had been to Wuhan, where the outbreak is still severe, no nearby hotels were willing to accommodate them. So they slept in the car.
For days, “we were either chased, turned away, or taken to quarantine,” he wrote. “We are merely refugees now.” They could not find new construction jobs either.
After the failed attempt at seeking proper compensation, Zhang wrote, “I will never go to Wuhan again in this life.”
‘Heroes’ to Homeless
Headquartered in Wuhan, the state-owned China Construction Third Engineering Bureau is one of the largest construction companies in the world and has for eight years been on the Fortune’s Global 500 list.
In a March 28 interview, Chen Weiguo, the company president and vice Communist Party secretary, told state broadcaster CCTV that the firm enlisted over 31,000 people from all over the country to work on the Leishenshan project. He called the workers “heroes” and promised to hand out an honorific certificate to each individual.
But Zhang, who put on full-body protective suits during his work shifts and stood on the scaffold to install color steel tiles, said he saw none of that.
“All we have is a piece of proof of our medical observation,” he wrote. “There was no certificate, no honor, no nothing.” After the hospital was complete, workers were required to be isolated—usually at local hotels that were converted into quarantine centers—for 14 days and take diagnostic tests for the CCP virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus. They often had to pay the associated fees themselves.
After reading Zhang’s post, a few sympathetic netizens tried to wire money to him: small amounts from 20 ($2.84) to 100 yuan ($14.2). But Zhang returned them all. He wrote that he only wanted justice.
For the past few days, Zhang has been roaming around, hoping to hear back from the construction company. He spent the past few nights on the curb of a park lawn. “The sky is my blanket and the earth my bed,” he wrote in an April 12 post, adding that he had been “sleep-deprived for days.”
“This is what we frontline workers receive for putting our lives on the line.”
Complaints about lack of pay did not come from construction workers alone. In March, a hospital in Shaanxi province was revealed to have paid some managerial staff three to four times more than frontline medical workers, after a payroll document was leaked online. The disparity sparked online outrage, and the hospital’s director and vice director eventually resigned.
In a survey by Dingxiangyuan, a Chinese online medical forum, only 12 percent of 1,900 medical professionals around the country said they received the special compensation that Chinese authorities had promised to pay medical workers helping to fight the epidemic.
Huang, a Guizhou city resident who joined the Leishenshan work crew in mid-February, said he was quarantined for more than a month in Wuhan after the construction was complete. On his way home, he passed through the southern city of Shenzhen and was again quarantined for two weeks.
“When we were looking for work, they would ask us where we worked before. They immediately said no when we said it was Wuhan,” he told The Epoch Times. Having no plans in store, he said he was “taking it step by step.”