SCMP: Misery of the out-of-towners pushed to the margins of society

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

Verna Yu
May 28, 2010

For the past 10 months, construction worker Wang Jianquan has been travelling back and forth between his home in rural Gansu and Beijing in the hope of getting wages he says he is owed.

"They owe me three months' pay," the 36-year-old migrant worker said. "But I'm afraid to go back to the construction site because when we went before, they beat us."

Wang was diagnosed with a lung infection last year. As a migrant in Beijing he is not entitled to the government medical insurance enjoyed by urban residents, so he had to go home to seek treatment.

In Beijing his living conditions were poor. Scores of workers were crammed into one dormitory, where water seeped in when it rained.

"We are just workers. We never dare presume anything better."

Wang has sought help from the Labour Bureau in Beijing many times, and although the construction company promised the government the workers would be paid, they have never received a penny.

Officially rural residents, his two young children are not entitled to free education in the city. Earning 8 yuan (HK$9) an hour, Wang can't afford to have his family with him in Beijing.

Now, without a job and social benefits, he is sleeping rough while fighting for his unpaid wages. No one wants to let a room to him, because he is a migrant worker, he said.

"I have two children, they are 10 and eight. And yet I'm away from them. To be honest, I feel everything is so meaningless."

Wang is just one of millions of migrant workers who have contributed to the economic miracle in the past couple of decades. Yet as rural residents they are unable to share in the wealth. Their plight is highlighted by the suicides at Foxconn.

"This is not an isolated incident," said Pun Ngai, associate professor of social sciences at Polytechnic University. "This is a warning sign and a show of resistance."

Pun said migrant workers suffer from low social status and are often discriminated against. Under the hukou, or household registration, system, they have none of the rights of urban residents and cannot change their peasant status.

Pun is one of nine academics who issued a joint statement showing their concern over the Foxconn tragedies and the plight of millions of migrant workers who have been pushed to the margins of society.

They said workers' basic rights had long been ignored.

"They are rootless. They are separated from their families, their parents have no one to look after them, and their children are deprived of their love," their statement said. "They live an undignified life."

The academics called on the central government to end "this development model, which sacrifices human dignity".

Wei Wei, founder of the Beijing-based Little Bird hotline for migrant workers, said society does not pay enough attention to workers' well-being until tragedies occur.

Apart from suffering low social status and low pay, the workers are expected to work like machines and have little time to make friends and form relationships, he said.

"When they are troubled, they don't know who to turn to. They lack family love. They don't know how to integrate into urban life ... and they are discriminated against and marginalised by society."

When they cannot put up with the pressure and are badly treated at work, they harbour resentment and resort to radical action, he said.

Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based workers' rights group, said the least employers could do was to offer workers a decent wage and reasonable hours to allow them to live normal lives. "Just don't put the pressure on them in the first place," he said.

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