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LABOUR-CHINA: Lure of Cities Often Ends in Despair

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Mar 1 2007 (IPS) - China’s rapid development and modernisation has come at a terrible human cost for the country’s millions of domestic migrant labourers, who are living in cities in appalling overcrowded conditions and are exposed to dangerous working environments, says a report released Thursday by Amnesty International.

Migrant workers in cities are not eligible for the state health care system and state education and are forced to work long stretches of overtime.

Amnesty International says there are between 150-200 million rural workers who have relocated to cities to find jobs – in some cities the migrant workers make up the majority of the population.

The discrimination faced by migrant workers stems from the “hukou” (household registration) system which requires all temporary residents to register.

Those workers who complete the difficult process of registering still find themselves facing discrimination in housing, education, health care and finding employment due to their temporary resident status.

Less fortunate migrant labourers, who do not register under the hukou system, find themselves vulnerable to exploitation by the police, landlords and employers.

The central government has passed reforms to improve the living and working conditions of migrant workers, but the hukou system continues to discriminate against migrants based on their rural origins.

“The reforms have not been implemented in a meaningful way but (even if implemented) they are not enough to solve the problems (facing migrant workers),” T. Kumar, advocacy director for Asia and Pacific Islands at Amnesty International, told IPS.

Managers in Chinese cities use a variety of methods to prevent workers from quitting despite poor working conditions and exploitive contracts.

Internal migrants are often owed back pay of up to two or three months to keep them from leaving. If they leave before their contract expires, they lose whatever back pay is owed.

Another common practice is for managers to withhold pay before the lunar New Year festivals to ensure workers will return to their jobs after the holiday – often making it impossible for migrant workers to purchase train tickets to visit their families.

The report, “Internal Migrants: Discrimination and Abuse, the Human Cost of an Economic ‘Miracle'”, emphasises that although many of the exploitive practices employed by managers are illegal, the migrant labourers are put in a legal limbo by the hukou system, leaving them no course of action to contest their treatment.

Such tactics allow managers to deal with increasing labour shortages in urban areas without raising wages – as is evidenced by negligible wage increases in a period of strong economic growth and increased demand for unskilled labour.

During the Maoist era, access to the benefits of living in cities was strictly limited to permanent urban residents. But the economic reforms of the 1980s brought waves of migrant workers to fuel the industrial booms surrounding Chinese cities.

“It’s a push-pull factor as collective farms collapse while at the same time cities need labourers and workers,” Kumar said.

The demand for an unskilled, migrant labour force has ballooned since the 1980s when the population of migrant labourers was just two million, with some estimating that the number will grow to 300 million by 2015.

While migrant workers are responsible for building China’s growing cosmopolitan cities, most will never gain permanent residency in the urban areas and will return to the countryside after their work in the cities is done.

The work performed by these migrant workers is directly responsible for the rapid growth and improvement of infrastructure in urban areas. They work in “factories to road building to (you) name it…,” said Kumar.

Wang Yuancheng, a former migrant labourer and now a member of the National People’s Congress, says in the report, “(T)he lives of migrant workers are miserable. They have to live in makeshift shelters, eat the cheapest bean curd and cabbage. They have no insurance and their wages are often delayed. And most of all, they are discriminated against by urban people.”

Migrant workers often live on the outskirts of urban areas where infrastructure is inadequate, in extremely crowded and unsanitary conditions. One 21-year-old man describes living in an underground storehouse without windows, showers or ventilation with 30 people sleeping on bunk beds. They were only permitted to take a shower once a week in a nearby building.

Amnesty International is calling on the Chinese government to eliminate all forms of discrimination against internal migrants which are prohibited by international law, including reforming the hukou system to remove discrimination based on social origin, removing barriers to health care access – especially those based on hukou status – and ending discriminatory closing of private schools dedicated to the children of migrant labourers.

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