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China: Migrant workers get attention at last
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - Left behind in China's scramble for wealth and ostracized during 20 years of uneven economic growth, millions of migrant workers are suddenly the focus of attention of the country's new leadership.

This week, outgoing Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji warned that China's economic record might be wrecked if the country's migrant laborers, who are moving from rural areas to cities in search of better lives, are not given a better share of the country's wealth.

Speaking at the opening session Wednesday of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, Zhu said, "We must exert a great deal of effort to resolve the problems of back pay for workers and overburdened farmers."

Addressing 3,000 delegates in the cavernous Great Hall of the People, Zhu issued a blunt warning to the incoming leaders of the country: "If we do not change these conditions, they will severely dampen farmers' enthusiasm to produce, undermine the foundations of agriculture and even threaten the overall health of the national economy."

The plight of China's underprivileged migrants has found its way not only into the work report of the prime minister, but also into the pages of tightly controlled state newspapers, signaling a significant shift in how China handles the flood of rural migrants from the impoverished countryside to the more prosperous cities.

The vast majority of the Chinese, that is its 900 million peasants, still do not enjoy the basic right - enshrined both in the United Nations charter and the Chinese constitution - to choose where they live in their country.

Under the country's household registration system, called hukou, they are tied to the land, locked out of the more affluent urban life. Only a relatively small number are temporarily allowed to work in the cities.

Some of the rural migrants are construction workers, sent home when the job is over. Many others are young girls making toys, clothing and shoes in the sweatshop factories in China's coastal cities.

Official figures put the number of people who leave the fields to labor in cities at about 90 million. Some economists say it is as high as 130 million.

Many peasant workers are only paid at the whim of their employers, and can be expelled without appeal at a moment's notice because they have no legal right to live there. Because of this status, they have little access to the judicial courts.

This year, several state-run newspapers reported cases of desperate public protest, such as that of two men in the southern city of Guangzhou who stood on the edge of a high building and threatened to jump if they were not paid before the Chinese New Year in February.

While working in the cities, peasants do the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. They are barred from access to schools, hospitals, nurseries and public housing and enjoy almost no legal rights. Nearly all the central government's budget is spent on providing for the urban population, leaving the rural migrants as second-class citizens in their own country.

But under a directive issued by the State Council, China's governing cabinet, in January, major changes are afoot. The document said rural migrants would be given "legal rights" to work in cities, while prohibiting job discrimination based on residency and potentially opening all jobs to rural migrants.

For the first time since the household registration system was introduced in the 1950s, the Chinese government seems to be making a genuine effort to phase it out, thereby removing a root cause of much social injustice and inequality in China.

The policy changes have their economic reasoning, because Beijing sees raising farmers' incomes as essential to maintaining healthy economic growth and bridging a rural-urban gap that many economists say is wider than when the communists came to power in 1949.

Per capita net income for rural people averaged 2,366 yuan (US$285) in 2001, the last year for which there are official figures. The urban disposable income in 2002 was about 7,000 yuan ($845) per capita.

It is no longer economically possible to employ the rural population only in agriculture - the surplus rural workforce is estimated at 150 million to 180 million. Their remittances often underpin the prosperity of large parts of rural China.

A threefold jump in rural incomes from 1989 to 2001 was due to "the increase in the salaries of the large force of rural migrant workers rather than to increased profits from traditional agricultural activities", according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

"It is an inevitable trend that surplus rural laborers will move to the cities," said Hong Dayong, associate professor with the department of Social Studies of People's University in Beijing. "A population shift would help ease the pressure on the country's limited cultivable land and other agricultural resources."

New policy initiatives that recognize legal rights of peasants to work in the cities are backed by the incoming generation of leaders, expected to be formally approved at the current session of China's legislature.

Both Communist Party chief Hu Jintao, who is assuming the presidency from retiring Jiang Zemin, and premier-to-be Wen Jiabao have made public their intention to be more responsive to the needs of the downtrodden in society.

(Inter Press Service)
Mar 8, 2003

Zhu's farewell warning (Mar 6, '03)

Jiang outlines China's economic agenda (Nov 9, '02)

China: Wrong part of the smiling curve (Oct 4, '02)

Communist Party of China Inc
(Aug 16, '02)


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