Migrant workers in China

Honour contribution of migrant workers

In the wake of a deadly fire, city authorities have been evicting tens of thousands of migrants from areas deemed as unsafe, yet have failed to offer alternative accommodation or even basic services to those who helped transform the capital into a modern metropolis

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 December, 2017, 1:26am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 December, 2017, 1:51am

On the face of it, a desire to cap Beijing’s growth and the demolition of residential buildings regarded as unsafe seem complementary. But there remains the question of the welfare of migrant workers. Beijing owes much for the development that has made it a better place to live to the hard work and survival skills of millions of migrants, who are still regarded in many ways as second-class citizens. Their contribution ought to be recognised. But in the wake of a fire that claimed 19 lives in a building in the capital’s southern outskirts, city authorities have shown them scant regard, with summary evictions of tens of thousands of workers from buildings regarded as unsafe.

Beijing migrant worker evictions: the four-character word you can’t say anymore

Most have been turned onto the streets as freezing weather sets in. The authorities do need to take resolute action to vacate dangerous buildings. But even then a society can expect to be judged by its treatment of vulnerable people. A published reference to migrant workers as “low-end population” does not convey a sense of compassion. Thankfully, state media have been quick to disown it and deny that the citywide safety campaign is driven by an agenda to get rid of them. The middle class has added its considerable weight to a moral outcry against their poor treatment. Beijing’s Communist Party chief, Cai Qi, was quick to react by advising city officials to give evictees time to find other accommodation. This also is some consolation to employers who are struggling to keep workers. We trust all this will prompt some serious reflection among officials.

The fire and its aftermath serve as a reminder that after decades of urbanisation, migrant workers still lack residential rights to basic social services such as health care and education. The fire broke out a month to the day after the opening of the 19th party congress, at which President Xi Jinping called for growth that would meet people’s ever growing need for a better life. That surely means for all Chinese people. The nation cannot ignore the basic needs of migrant workers just because they are unable to afford to live in the cities to which they contributed so much. Callous characterisation of them as “low end” has backfired and the change of tone at the official level is welcome.