Only thing missing from plans to help migrants are the migrants themselves

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 September, 2011, 12:00am


Helping migrant workers integrate into local society has never been so critical for Guangdong policymakers.

Following riots triggered by conflicts between local villagers and workers from other provinces in June - the worst in the province in decades - local governments in the Pearl River Delta are rushing to implement new measures to win over the more than 17 million migrant workers in the region.

Dongguan, which, as home to most of the province's migrant workers, has been dubbed the 'world's factory', has established the mainland's first self-governed residential communities for migrant workers. The China News Service reported that at least three such communities had been set up in Zhangmutou township by last month, all led by migrant workers.

In Guangzhou, for the first time, three migrant workers were 'elected' to the city's people's congress early this month. All three are workers in Zengcheng, on Guangzhou's northeastern outskirts, where the worst rioting occurred.

Several thousand migrant workers in Zengcheng's Xintang township demonstrated on the streets in June, smashing cars and setting fire to government buildings to protest at perceived injustices. The riots lasted for five days until troops were sent in to restore order.

And in Zhongshan and Guangzhou, top leaders have echoed a call by the Dongguan city government few years ago to replace the term 'migrant worker' with new ones, such as 'new Guangzhou people' or 'new Zhongshan people'.

It is good to see authorities finally doing something for people they have ignored for so long, even though their main motivation appears to be concern that a widening wealth gap and differences among various social groups might lead to social instability.

However, such efforts rest on shaky foundations. The first problem is that the officials responsible for improving the lot of migrants are not really interested in doing anything because there is nothing in it for them.

An official with the China Youth League's Guangzhou committee said that after the Zengcheng riots, it was assigned to 'work closely with young migrant workers' in Dadun village, the epicentre of the rioting.

He said several local youth league officials had visited the village, had meetings with local village officials, and brainstormed plans to make young migrant workers feel more welcome, for example by organising a Mid-Autumn Festival party or inviting them to watch free movies.

But asked whether they had visited the migrant workers in the industrial zone where they live, his answer was, 'no'. They hadn't toured their factories or even asked whether the migrants approved of the party plans.

'Nobody wants to waste too much time on that,' he said.

The official's thoughts make sense viewed through the prism of Chinese bureaucracy because those not directly responsible for migrant workers have little incentive to 'closely' follow such tasks.

But thoughts like that also reveal the second - and bigger - problem facing policymakers: migrant workers are not involved in the process of drafting the blueprint for their rights because they have no right to be involved.

Several Guangdong-based NGOs that help migrant workers in pay disputes and other rights issues have complained for at least two years that they get less freedom to operate because the authorities distrust grass-roots NGOs.

A director of one of them said grass-roots NGOs organised by migrant workers were still regarded as troublemakers.

'They [the governments] only trust the institutions or people backed by themselves,' the director said. 'It is progress that we finally have three worker delegates in Guangzhou, but we don't think they can really speak out for migrant workers. Instead, they might just follow officials' instructions.'

It is such a paradox that the authorities who want to reduce the threat of social unrest still follow their old rules: everything must be under their control, leaving little room for the grass roots.

But without hearing the real voice of the migrant workers and knowing their real demands - the very issues that helped spark the June riots - how can plans for a better future for migrant workers be practical?

How can officials improve the rights of migrants while leaving them out of the discussion?