Some workers say they receive small amounts, $10 or $12 a month, largely spent on company and government charges that make it difficult to buy even necessities. Wu Shisong, a migrant worker from Hubei province, said this can include a $1.82 charge for a health certificate "even though no one checks us," $10.95 for a work suit "that's worth $1.20," a $2.50 charge for a hard hat, $1.20 for a temporary residence card and $4.50 for a SARS checkup.
As frustration among migrant workers has intensified and the gap widened between rich and poor, rural and urban, coastal areas and the interior, the Communist Party has become increasingly worried about the potential for political instability. Suicide attempts, violence against bosses, destruction of property and mass protests by migrant workers are increasingly common.
"I still hope the government will help me solve my problem," said Chen Guangping, a 34-year-old farmer from Sichuan province, who's petitioning the government for $105 owed for work done in Beijing, pointing a large, calloused finger for emphasis. "Society is really dark and wrong. If I lose hope, I may have no option but to kill myself."
Some provinces have started pressuring private contractors to pay their workers, threatening to disclose company names in the media if they balk.
But experts say the government is often a willing party. Not only are many real estate projects closely linked to government officials, but a large number of vanity projects funded by local governments are owned outright by the governments.
"Government officials aren't beholden to ordinary people, only to their higher bosses," said one rural development expert affiliated with the State Council, who asked not to be identified. "Building boondoggle projects is a way to get promoted, and not paying workers is all part of it."
Out in her Sichuan village, pig farmer Xiong is delighted that her meeting with Wen allowed her to get the family's money. But she says all the attention -- including one major television program that named her person of the year -- has its downside. She's now besieged by desperate people across China hoping her magic will rub off on them.
Xiong said she had no idea when she headed out to her fields that morning that she'd be famous by nightfall. Heading home, she was accosted by several local party cadres who told her someone important was visiting and warned her not to say anything controversial.
Her hands dirty from the fields, she sat some distance from Wen, but when no other villagers spoke up to answer his questions, she decided to speak her mind. "That's my personality. I've always since a small child believed in telling the truth. But I never dreamed one sentence would make me so famous."
Social activists and rural development experts say they welcome the government's new kinder, gentler approach and herald the example Wen set. For many workers, however, an unfortunate lesson drawn from the chance meeting is that it takes someone very well-connected to make sure you get paid.
"She was very lucky to get her money back," migrant worker Li said. "But someone as important as the premier doesn't have the time to go around collecting money for people."