Migrant workers feel the squeeze in Beijing micro-flats

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 6:28pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 6:59pm

Just when you thought Hong Kong’s sub-divided flats couldn’t get any smaller, consider this – more than 38 residents squeeze themselves into an Beijing apartment measuring about 130 square metres (1,400 square feet), the Southern Metropolitan Daily reported on Wednesday.

In a high-end residential area in uptown Beijing, the owner of a three-storey duplex sub-divided his property into 38 rooms and rented them out to maximise his profits.

All 38 rooms – each measuring about 30 square feet – have been successfully rented out. Most residents are low-income migrant workers from far-flung provinces around China, who are prepared to endure the most basic any living conditions just to find employment in the capital.

According to the 2011 national census, Beijing is China’s second largest city has more than 20 million inhabitants – with migrant workers making up one-third of residents.

The tenants living in the 38 rooms include sales staff, waitresses, fitness trainers, smartphone game developers, bartenders, students, hairdressers and property agents.

“This is the smallest room I have ever lived in,” one tenant named Peng said. He said he lives in the cramped room to save money to repay a debt he owes.

Peng said he felt fortunate that the landlord at least provided hot water for a shower, although queues for this often last well into the night.

Peng pays 800 yuan (HK$987) a month for this room – a rate far lower than Beijing’s average monthly rental of 3,654 yuan (HK$4,508). However, the rent he pays for the 30-square-foot room would have allowed him to afford a room of over 100 square feet five years before – or a 200-square-foot room ten years ago, Peng told newspaper.

Zhuo Ya, another tenant in the sub-divided block, is an office clerk at a small company. She complains of the unpleasant odour and humidity in the room throughout the year. “When I am in bed, I can hear people in the bathroom brushing their teeth, taking a shower, using and flushing the toilet “ Zhuo said the only reason she lived there was because of the low rent, having secured a bargain monthly rent of just 650 yuan (HK$800) from the landlord.

Cheaper basement apartments used to be home to as many as a million migrant workers in Beijing. But this era came to an end when government declared it illegal to rent basements, citing safety concerns, in early 2011. This prompted a spate of enforced evacuations which saw hundreds of thousands of basement dwellers being removed from their homes. Authorities maintained the clearance was for the good of the occupants, arguing that sub-divided rooms in basements were a fire hazard.

Peng says he had considered living in basement but changed his mind after two basement residents drowned when the heaviest rains in decades hit Beijing this July.

Peng now plans to move to a bigger place. “If there is a fire here, I’m worried I would not be able to escape,” he said.