Beijing does right by its migrants

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2011, 12:00am


Beijing municipal authorities have opened the door of a low-income public housing scheme to migrants for the first time. Only those with a long record of stable employment will be admitted and other details remain vague. But it is a significant, if limited, change in policy.

Migrants account for a third of Beijing's residents. They are excluded from the social safety net under the household registration system, or hukou, which ties entitlements to the province of registration. Despite its economic ascent and urbanisation, the central government is not yet ready to abandon the system and allow people to move and work freely across the country without sacrificing basic rights. As a result, tens of millions of migrant workers who have helped build the modern cities along the mainland's southern coast remain vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous bosses who realise they are under pressure to keep their jobs to feed themselves and their families.

Like the mainland's one-child policy, the hukou has helped maintain social stability and avoid widespread disruption. But it weighs heavily on long-time migrant workers and their families, given their contribution to the economic development of their adopted homes. Access to subsidised housing would make a difference to them without involving host governments in a commitment to recurrent spending on benefits.

Many low-income earners who do have hukou struggle to find affordable housing because of runaway property prices. The central government has set a national target this year of building 10 million homes for them. Opening up subsidised rental housing to migrants who have settled permanently is a step in the right direction that other cities and provinces should follow.

Migrant workers deserve better for the contributions they have made to the nation's economy. Mainland authorities need to devise a more equitable welfare system to mitigate the harsher effects of the hukou system and, eventually, to replace it.