Migrant construction workers 'the lowest of the low'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 4:24am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 4:24am

Liu Xiwu, 53, first left his home in Hebei when he was 18 years old, to help build railway tracks in Beijing.

Now, over 30 years later, Liu continues to leave home for any city hiring construction workers, joining 40 million other migrant builders flooding into cities as their land fails to provide enough to sustain their families.

"Peasant migrant workers don't have tempers. If you want to cheat us, you can cheat us, if you want to bully us, you can bully us. We don't retaliate," he said. "We peasant migrant workers are the lowest tier in society; we migrant construction workers have the lowliest job in the hierarchy."

As China's buildings grow taller, hotels more luxurious and the transport system more complicated, Liu said he would continue to work at construction sites for another decade or so - or till no one would hire him anymore.

Liu said he left his town - an "old revolutionary village" of 3,000 located in a valley nestled among Taihang Mountains - in the 1980s, as soon as the government started allowing people to look for jobs in the city. Wages were at around 3 yuan in the 1990s, he said.

Up till the early 2000s, construction workers failed to get paid 60 to 70 per cent of the time, despite having completed the work, he said. It was also common for workers to be beaten up. But everyone still kept on working because it was that or having no money to bring home at all.

Liu said the chances of actually getting paid now were higher, and living arrangements better.

But work is never regular. And there is still no labour protection; most companies don't sign labour contracts, and so these workers are not covered by any kind of insurance. Unpaid wages and wages lower than promised are still commonplace. Violence still happens.

"We don't dare ask for much. We just want to get what we've earned on time," he said.

Seeking legal remedies or protection is out of the question, being too expensive and time consuming. Sometimes he felt he was just born unlucky, Liu said.

Farming could not sustain a family, with an acre of land yielding an annual crop worth only 500 yuan (HK$630), Liu said. Migrant work continues to be the only way to survive.

"We're here to be exploited. We're always desperate for jobs. I guess this is our advantage - we can provide labour any time."

Liu said he was lucky to have weathered all this and "done well", by village standards. His eldest daughter is married and working in Beijing, another daughter is currently writing exams for a Masters programme, and a son is studying in technical college. His next goal is to earn enough to buy his children apartments in town.

"As long as my children have a future, I'm content," he said. "I don't want the next generation to be migrant workers."