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RIGHTS-CHINA: Migrants Are Badly Needed, But Get Little Support

Kit Gillet

BEIJING, Jul 17 2010 (IPS) - Thirty-six-year-old Luo Fusheng left his hometown in China’s Jiangxi province a decade ago to look for work to help support his family. Unskilled and with limited education, Luo eventually ended up in the factory city of Shenzhen, more than 700 kilometres to the south, where he now works as a security guard.

A migrant worker is paid low and has few benefits because he does not have official residency status. Credit: Kit Gillet/IPS

A migrant worker is paid low and has few benefits because he does not have official residency status. Credit: Kit Gillet/IPS

“I only earn 1,000 yuan (150 U.S. dollars) a month, but I rarely get it all. The employer always pays less for various reasons,” Luo said in a telephone interview.

He sends home most of his salary, which is below the minimum wage, to put his four children through school. “I don’t want my children to be migrant workers. That is why I try my best to send them to school.”

Luo is not alone. According to a government report released in July, China’s population of migrant workers is at a record high — 211 million of its 1.3 billion people now live a transient existence in order to find work. This number would reach 350 million by 2050, the report predicted.

Many of these migrants are, like Luo, unskilled labourers in blue-collar jobs like construction and factory work. For the most part, they live far from their families in shared dormitories for all but a few weeks a year, while being paid comparatively little for long shifts and denied many of the basic rights that come with city residence.

A series of strikes and suicides in recent months at factories across China have highlighted the unhappy conditions that a significant proportion of the country’s migrants are forced to live in.

In June, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called for improvements in urban living conditions for migrant workers, who, he suggested, make a significant contribution to society. “The government and all sectors of society should treat migrant workers as they would their own children,” he told the media during a visit with subway construction workers in Beijing.

But the country’s regulations and bureaucracy are not quite migrant- friendly. For instance, migrant workers who have lived in one city for several years are still unable to gain official residency there unless they were born there or are in a skilled profession.

Without official residency, they are denied benefits such as free education for children. This, in turn, forces many migrant workers to leave their children in their home provinces to be raised by grandparents, a situation that exacerbates feelings of displacement.

The July government report, issued by the National Population and Family Planning Commission of China, also found that China’s migrant workers have an average monthly income of just 280 dollars. It said that 17.7 percent of their children do not have access to local immunisation vaccines, only 26.8 percent have medical care subsidies, and more than 60 percent have to pay for their own medical expenses.

“While I think that the large population of migrant workers is good for the country, in that it helps facilitate China’s development, much more is needed in education and improving the lives of migrant workers,” said Liu Kaiming, a labour researcher and executive director of the Shenzhen-based Institute of Contemporary Observation.

Liu points out that migrants’ low level of education often leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and unsure of their legal rights.

“Eighty-five percent of the new generation of migrant workers, those who were born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have received nine years or less of education – it is far from enough,” he explained in an interview.

At the same time, reports in the Chinese media have suggested that despite these migrants’ lack of education, it is this younger generation, which numbers over 100 million, that has been at the forefront of recent strikes and efforts to improve the rights and wages of migrant workers across China.

“While it is true the first generation of migrant workers endured tough living conditions, it is also natural that the younger generation will no longer put up with it,” Lu Huilin, an associate professor of sociology at Peking University, told the state-owned ‘China Daily’ newspaper. “If the situation is not handled properly, more problems will be triggered in future.”

The recent workers’ strikes at the Chinese facilities of Honda, Toyota and Carlsberg, among others, have so far ended favourably for workers, who returned to their workstations with promises of wage increases.

But the fact that it has taken extreme action to get these improvements is far from reassuring to some.

“The government should make concessions to workers in negotiations, and should raise the existing salary level and allow people to supervise them,” said Xiao Qingshan, a labour activist based in the southern Guangdong province, home to a huge number of factories.

“Migrant workers are being treated different. They are engaging in the hardest work, while getting the lowest payment,” he said in an interview. At present, Chinese workers are unable to choose their own labour union representatives, and migrant workers have an even more limited say in their working conditions, hours and housing. Likewise, with millions of new migrant workers joining the employment pool every year, it is easy for bosses to exploit the situation for their own advantage.

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