China's migrant workers deserve a fairer deal

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2007, 12:00am

Workers drawn from mainland China's poorer provinces to the factories and construction sites of its booming southeast have been crucial to the nation's spectacular economic rise. Yet, rather than being rewarded handsomely for their efforts, they have suffered from low wages and have not being given their due by employers or the government.

Beijing has long recognised the plight of the tens of millions of people involved. But its efforts to correct the injustices have had limited effect. Working conditions for the majority are still harsh, safety standards remain poor and the legal system is still failing to hear their grievances fairly.

Our two-part series on the plight of migrant workers, which concludes today on page A6, reveals just how shocking are the circumstances of those whose low-cost labour has helped generate the huge trade surpluses that swell the government's foreign reserves. If not for the poor pay and conditions they have been willing to endure, China would be much poorer.

Nations that benefit from the workers' circumstances have shown little concern. While they are getting low-cost goods of a high quality, the fact that China, the workshop of the world, is also - for many - a sweatshop has been of little concern.

Some nations, the US among them, have been worried about correcting a trade imbalance. But Washington's insistence that the yuan must be further revalued will not help mainland factory workers; rather, the pressure for factory owners to produce goods priced even more competitively to make up for the correction could worsen their circumstances.

In the meantime, there is no let-up in the pressure workers face. Exports last month were up by a third on those in January last year.

As migrant workers head home for the Lunar New Year holiday, many will be reconsidering their position. Wages have barely moved over the past year, despite the economy growing by almost 10 per cent.

Many have not received back-wages, often because subcontractors have absconded. This is despite government efforts to tackle the problem of wage arrears. Protests against working conditions or ill-treatment have been broken up by the authorities.

The profits made by mainland and foreign firms and the benefits to the government from its migrant workforce have been enormous. China has powered forward on their sweat.

The time has come for a change. Migrant workers need a better deal, and this can only be achieved by the central government making good on its pledges to improve their lot. More effective measures are needed. That means ensuring wages are fairer, conditions better, contracts fulfilled and legal rights enforced.