Beijing labourers dying in race for Olympic deadline

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The Independent Online

Labourers from poor rural areas of China, some in their teens and often lacking the most basic safety equipment, are working seven-day weeks for less than £20 to complete the facilities for next year's Beijing Olympics, an Independent on Sunday investigation has revealed.

Six workers were killed late last month on an Olympics project, the construction of a subway tunnel. The state-owned company carrying out the project was accused of a cover-up after the six were buried in a partial collapse of the tunnel, waiting eight hours to report the accident while carrying out its own rescue attempt.

According to the Beijing Times, supervisors took away workers' mobile phones to prevent word leaking out. The first the authorities learned of the accident was when a worker from nearby Henan province secretly called police in his home town, and they relayed the information to Beijing.

Many of the 2,000 workers building the National Stadium, the centrepiece of the Olympics site, are also from poverty-stricken Henan, where £70 a month sounds like a good wage to subsistence farmers, even though it is below the legal minimum in the capital. To earn even that much and meet the tight construction deadlines, however, they have to forgo their one day off a week.

"I work 12 hours a day, six days a week," said Junle (not his real name), a 51-year-old crane driver. For this he earns 50 yuan (£3.27) a day, but 8 yuan is deducted for food from the canteen. He is one of 8,000 labourers who have been working for over three years on the stadium and the other main buildings on the Olympics site in north Beijing: the Olympic village, the media centre, the gymnasium and the huge Olympic pool, all of it hidden behind thick blue fences.

Junle and other ordinary workers are housed just outside the site in office buildings transformed into dormitories. Conditions for foremen and the multitude of grey-uniformed guards employed to keep strangers away are scarcely less spartan. They live 12 to a room in unheated white prefabricated buildings, with no running water.

Getting on to the site, after hours of negotiations with the guards, I met Xiaoling, 17, who is part of the National Stadium night shift. Because of his slight build, he was chosen to work on the roof of the stadium, 229ft above ground. He does this in all weathers, bare-handed and in worn-out trainers - many sub-contractors do not issue gloves or construction boots to their workers.

The previous night a guard saw Xiaoling entering the site without his helmet, and told his boss. To his fury, he was fined four days' money, or 200 yuan, which will be deducted from his next pay packet.

Like many others, he doesn't know when his contract expires. But all the workers are sure of one thing: they do much more than the seven working hours a day claimed by the Chinese news agency, Xinhua.