Migrant workers in China

‘They came banging and kicking’: Beijing airport workers swept up in fire safety crackdown

Police descend on neighbourhood popular with workers at the capital’s airport, with some staff saying they will leave the city for good

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 November, 2017, 7:18am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 November, 2017, 8:07pm

The banging at the door came without warning.

A salesman who would only identify himself by his surname Ma living about 3km from Beijing’s main airport was at home at around 8.30pm on Monday when the police pounded at the door and told him to get out.

“They were not knocking on my door, they were banging and kicking,” Ma said. “I had around 10 minutes to pack my belongings and leave before they sealed my home.”

Like hundreds of others, Ma and his girlfriend who works at the airport were forced out onto the street in freezing temperatures with most of their belongings still inside their two-storey home.

The area, Liqiao township in Shunyi district, is home to thousands of people working at Beijing Capital International Airport, which employs about 60,000 people.

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The neighbourhood in the city’s northeast is just one that has been caught up in a 40-day crackdown on safety after a fire in a residential building in Daxing on the fringes of the capital killed 19 people just over a week ago.

Often violently and sometimes without warning, officers have mounted raids in areas where many of the city’s migrant workers have rented housing, leaving tens of thousands homeless at the start of winter.

There have also been multiple reports of water and electricity being cut to force occupants to move out.

The campaign corresponds with a bigger push over the last year to limit the size of Beijing’s population, a drive that has involved shutting down wholesale markets and warehouses and clearing slum areas.

Ma said he had no idea that his home would be raided.

“We were not notified of any evacuation before they came,” he said, adding that he was told he could go back after three days to collect his belongings.

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Around half a dozen residents of the area reported a similar experience.

A security screener at the airport surnamed Hao said she was also forced out of her home on Monday night and had decided to leave the city for good.

She said the case was the same for more than 10 of her colleagues at the airport, an exodus of staff that she said had affected the facility’s operations.

“It’s not only the security screening section [that is hit], but also other departments,” Hao said.

A flight attendant with an overseas airline said she had been staying at a friend’s place since she was forced out on Monday night.

“It’s just ridiculous. They banged on my door and told me to pack my valuables in around a quarter of an hour,” she said.

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“People who live here are mostly security screeners and other ground staff living on modest salaries ... An airport of this size will need all of these people. It will certainly be affected.”

Landlords in the neighbourhood, where monthly rents range from around 500 yuan (US$75) to 1,000 yuan for a room, said they were not notified of any new fire security requirements before the raids took place.

“They picked a few houses a night, and went like, ‘get your ID and move’,” one landlord said. “I’m very scared every day.”

Calls to the airport’s security company and catering firm – a big employer of migrant workers – went unanswered.

The evictions come as Beijing tries to limit demand on resources in the capital by forcing out “low-end” industries such as textile wholesaling and manufacturing. But the campaign has been derided as inhumane by many in the community in the last week.

All was quiet in Liqiao on Tuesday with no raids carried out that night.

However, the township’s Communist Party chief did lay down the law about fire safety, requirements that landlords said would be impossible for tenants to meet.

“They said they will ban induction cooking indoors, but who can afford to eat out for every meal?” one landlord said. “The fire safety regulations apply only to the tenants, not to us locals. I think it’s very obvious they’re trying to drive these people out.”

The villagers were also told to limit tenants to around one-third the present number.

The landlord said most contract workers at the airport did not have employer-provided housing and the neighbourhood one of the few placed they could afford to live.