Migrant workers, the unsung heroes of the economic revolution, reap few of its rewards

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2009, 12:00am

Dark skinned, firmly built and tall, it is hard to imagine 23-year-old Li Xin needs a seat after walking for just a couple of minutes.

But for the Sichuan native, getting around has been a laborious process in the last two months.

Every time he goes outside he needs a companion to catch him in case he faints.

The reason for his fragility: an unusually high concentration of benzol in his blood. It's a highly inflammable, carcinogenic liquid hydrocarbon. He blames it on his job, painting bulk containers at a Dongguan factory.

At his side is 33-year-old Hu Changqing, a co-worker who experiences problems with his hearing and lungs.

Hu, from rural Hubei, received only seven years of education and left his three-hectare family rice field in search of a brighter future in the city when he was only 17.

Li and Hu are two of the millions of migrant workers who have formed the largest wave of urbanisation in human history.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 225 million people, or 28 per cent of the mainland's rural population, are migrant workers. Amnesty International estimates the number of rural migrant workers will rise to 300 million in 2015.

Migrant workers account for 80 per cent of the workforce in the construction industry, 68 per cent in the manufacturing industry, and 52 per cent in the retail and restaurant business, according to Xinhua. Their production accounts for one quarter of the mainland's gross domestic product.

They are the nameless heroes who build the glittering skyscrapers that line the mainland's urban boulevards, and the driving force behind the inexpensive 'Made in China' consumer goods.

'They are the main contributor to China's economic development,' says Parry Leung Pak-nang, an independent unionist in Hong Kong. 'But their contribution is not in proportion to what they enjoy.'

Most migrants lead fraught lives without proper access to health care, education and other social services. Their living and working conditions are often unpleasant and unsafe.

The income disparity between migrant workers and permanent urban populations is stark. In Shenzhen, for example, the minimum wage for migrant workers is set at a nationwide high of 1,000 yuan a month, while urban residents earn on average 3,233 yuan, according to figures from the International Trade Union Confederation. Technicalities and lax enforcement mean many employers don't even pay the minimum.

Migrants' existence has been made even more difficult by the global economic crisis. Official figures put the number of migrant labourers out of work at the beginning of the year at about 20 million, with 4.2 million still looking for jobs by the end of June.

Sick and concerned about the economy, Li and Hu are pessimistic about their future.

Their employer disputes the cause of their illness and the two must pay their medical bills. They also send money home every month.

'I don't know what to do. My parents are farmers, they are poor. That is why I left home and worked in the city,' Li says. The money Hu sends home is for his parents, his wife and their two sons, aged 10 and two. Hu wants his two sons to have a better life than he has had, and has sent his older boy to the best boarding school in the area. He is not sure how long he can afford to do this.

For many, living costs in the cities are exorbitant, meaning parents must leave their children in the countryside and see them only at Lunar New Year. Those who take their children with them cannot afford public schools, so their children receive sub-standard education. 'It is very sad. Unable to receive a good education, the children's future will not be easy,' says Liu Linping , director of Sun Yat-sen University's labour research and service centre.

Hu says: 'My son, the younger one, he is only two, he doesn't remember me. I was a stranger the last time I went home.'

Li and Hu know that going home is not the solution - they know far more about working in factories than farming now. Li says: 'I don't know what my future will be. Even if I recover, my health will not be as good as before. But farming has no future. The money I can make doing that is less than what I have now. And I still won't be able to find a wife.'

Major contributors

225 million people, or 28 per cent of the rural population, are migrant workers

The proportion of the mainland's gross domestic product they produce is: 25%

Fraught existence

The number of migrant workers without a job at the beginning of 2009 was: 20m

Wage inequity

In Shenzhen, the minimum wage was set at a nationwide high of 1,000 yuan per month

Urban residents earn an average, in yuan, of: 3,233