China is finally taking measures to improve the lot of its migrant workers. In a directive issued this month, the State Council asserted that migrants have a legal right to work in urban areas, where they have long been subject to discrimination. According to the measure, residency status can no longer be used to discriminate against job applicants, and any migrant engaged in gainful employment should be given relevant urban residency permits. Rural migrants have long done the dirty work that their city-slicker cousins disdain, from cleaning streets and homes to waiting at table and driving taxis. Modern China could not function without them. They also labour in factories that produce the country's trade surpluses and contribute to its huge foreign exchange reserves. Yet despite their immense contributions they have too often been treated as second-class citizens, barred from the plum jobs urban residents still want and denied access to state-subsidised education and health care in the towns and cities where they work and live. As a result, a generation of rural children has been raised by their grandparents or other elderly relatives. They see their far-flung parents as little as once a year, usually during the Lunar New Year holiday. This enforced separation of parent and child is one of the great tragedies of China's reform and opening. Similarly, the millions of predominantly young women working in China's coastal factory belt hold their jobs for a monotonous few years, saving as much money as possible to make a better life later in their rural communities. As such, their experience is fundamentally different to that of immigrants who have contributed to the greatness of so many other societies, from Hong Kong to the United States. Never truly welcomed into their host communities, China's migrants have for too long been denied the implicit bargain that fuels immigration elsewhere - a life of hard work in return for, at the very least, better opportunities for their children and grandchildren. Very few migrants on the mainland can boast that their children are going to university, a realm that is still dominated by the sons and daughters of China's urban elite. The State Council's directive is a step in the right direction. But as always, well-intentioned central government policies will amount to little if local authorities do not embrace them wholeheartedly. In too many cities, migrant communities remain easy marks for revenue-starved district officials. There are encouraging signs that local officials are heeding the central government's call for greater fairness. Last year, for example, Guangzhou launched a public fund that migrants can draw on for emergency medical treatment. Educational opportunities for migrants' children, however, remain limited and expensive. Migrant workers deserve a more level playing field in their new homes, and China can only benefit by providing them with one. Ultimately, urban residents have more to gain by offering their country cousins civic inclusion on an equitable basis.