|China: Migrant workers get attention at
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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)
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
"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
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.