The image shot around China’s mobile screens like a still of real-life horror movie. A stocky police officer standing over the body of a woman in a purple coat, a police van in the backdrop. Her lifeless face is framed by the officer’s shoes and the cold asphalt. According to witnesses, this was the price she paid for challenging her boss.

The scene, now known in China as the “December 13” or 12/13 incident, is now an international news story because it was caught on video, but it represents in many ways business as usual for China’s migrant workforce. Moving in droves from rural areas into cities, they jump from one poverty-wage job to another, braving dangerous working conditions and rampant wage theft and exploitation. They often have virtually no legal recourse, because they lack an enforceable contract. Like undocumented immigrants, China’s live on the rough edge of the urban economy, barely able to secure housing and food, much less sue for back pay.

The woman was Zhou Xiuyun, a 47-year-old mother from Henan Province. She had reportedly approached the site of a construction company in Taiyuan City, Shanxi, in a group of more than ten workers who were owed back wages. A clash with police ensued, and at some point the woman was assaulted, her neck was twisted and she was left on the ground in the biting winter air, unresponsive. Her husband was reportedly also beaten, ending up with several broken ribs, and later complained that the officers ignored his pleas for help and “accused her of playing dead.”

The visual details of the video are in dispute, but authorities appear to be responding to widespread outrage. This week, state media reported that authorities have arrested three police officers in the ongoing investigation, charging one with directly causing her death and two others with “abusing their power.”

But the more profound abuse of power is built into the very edifice of the country’s modernization agenda. This week a coalition of scholars from mainland and Hong Kong universities issued an open letter citing the death of Zhou as emblematic of systemic hardships besetting migrants across China. “This event reflects not only unlawful police conduct,” they wrote, “but also the hardships facing as many as 40 million migrant construction workers.”

The scholars cited their earlier published study (summarized in translation by Hong Kong–based watchdog group China Labour Bulletin) detailing the hostile labor climate of the burgeoning construction industry.

The analysis revealed that workers suffer from chronic wage violations and job insecurity, denial of social security payments, and job-related injuries. Those problems are nothing new, but the scholars point to 12/13 as proof that President Xi JinPing is failing to live up to his repeated promises to institute “rule of law reforms.” Xi has vowed to crack down on official corruption, while also suppressing dissent. Meanwhile, labor unrest has seemed to intensify, and China’s fast, but waning, growth remains offset by roiling inequality.

According to China Labour Bulletin, “The number of construction worker protests, the vast majority of which are related to wage arrears, has increased dramatically during the second half of the year…. since 1 October we have recorded 168 construction worker protests, about 30 percent of the total strikes and protests across the country.”

The group’s investigation of multiple cities, including Beijing, Wuhan, Chengdu and Xi’an, found that more than 80 percent of migrant construction workers “did not sign labor contracts, and in some cities’ rate of workers without signed contracts ran as high as 94.5% (Chongqing), 93.2% (Zhengzhou), 87.9% (Wuhan).” Many of those who did sign contracts did not even have a copy of the document for their own reference.

Workers were frequently injured, but lacking a formal contract, under the “hidden rules” of the industry, many were shorted on compensation. About 80 percent of non-contract workers were forced to settle injury claims out of court, resulting in underpayments for a large majority—a third received less than a fifth of their estimated legal entitlement.

The scholars argued that illegal subcontracting arrangements are common practice, and are a major driver of labor abuses, by making it easier for employers to skirt reglations and avoid liability for workers’ injuries.

China is, of course, not alone in this pattern of wage theft; construction work in the United States is one of the most precarious sectors, rife with wage violations, illegal subcontracting and unsafe conditions, along with a lack of union representation.

Studies by the global union coalition IndustriALL have found that contingent and agency subcontracting work has become a common way for employers around the world to evade labor regulations in many blue-collar sectors, from construction to mining. In countries without independent trade unions, like China, protections for migrants depend on the enforcement of labor laws. Yet the alleged death of a protesting worker at the hands of police reveals how law enforcement now acts as an instrument of repression on behalf of industry.

The scholars noted that the workers were protesting just ahead of the Chinese New Year Spring Festival, a time when migrants nationwide journey to their home communities to distribute their year’s earnings. According to the letter, their wage arrears had reached some 29,000 yuan or about $4,700. Minimum wage is typically less than 1,500 yuan per month.

Just like Latino immigrant workers in the United States, China’s migrant workers typically face immense pressure to earn as much money as possible under brutal conditions to support families left behind in relatively poor villages.

Perhaps Zhou’s death could have been avoided if the workers had thought twice about protesting, knowing their demands would lead to trouble with the police. As migrants, however, such dangers were integral to their livelihood. As they gathered that day, maybe they thought about turning back to play it safe. But daring to demand wages would be just one more of the many risks they had taken.

In the struggle to survive in a hostile city, some days their jobs were worth the risk. That day, it wasn’t.