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Home> Specials>reform and opening up 30 years>30 years News
Three decades on, China's migrants still "outside looking in"
Latest Updated at 2008-December-9 09:25:38

A staff member introduces the photo gallery of migrant workers' smiling faces at the Culture and Arts Museum of Migrant Labor in the northeastern suburbs of Beijing in this photo released on October 22, 2008. [Photo:]

Temporary residence permits, pay slips showing wages of 800 to 1,600 yuan (114 to 228 U.S. dollars) for 28 working days a month, photos showing migrant workers' hearty smiles, tears and bewilderment in bustling cities away from their rural homes.

These documents, alongside old uniforms, worn helmets, simple barbecue stoves, a shabby tricycle and other implements with which many migrants eked out a living, have been collected at the Culture and Arts Museum of Migrant Labor in the northeastern suburbs of Beijing.

At a corner of the museum is a small room that holds only a makeshift bed, one that is supported by bricks and a stool.

"We hope to record the living conditions, the culture and history of the migrant population," said Xu Guojian, 31, who opened the museum with his friends in May.

Xu politely asks every visitor to register in a notebook. From May to October, the museum had about 1,300 visitors, mostly students, volunteers and migrant workers from at least 100 manufacturing companies nearby.


In Beijing, the location of the five-room museum is where many migrants feel they themselves are: at the city's doorstep.

Picun, which literally means "rubber village," is just a few kilometers from the Capital International Airport. A trip to the nearest town in the neighboring province of Hebei takes an hour, while a bus ride to downtown Beijing takes about two.

Xu Guojian and his friends chose this obscure village to set up the museum largely because it was out of the way and therefore free from relocation concerns.

"The long arms of real estate developers won't reach here because high-rise buildings are forbidden near the airport," said Xu.

The village has about 1,500 permanent residents, but four times as many migrants like Xu, an amateur ballad singer and guitarist from the wealthy eastern province of Zhejiang who is head of the museum.

After he lost out in the intense competition of the national college entrance exam, Xu came to Beijing in 1999 to learn rock'n'roll at a private music school.

To make a living, he delivered distilled water, taught music at a private school for migrants' children and most of those years, sang in the street or at subway stations.

In 2001, Xu met Wang Dezhi, another street singer who borrowed 100 yuan from him to get back a guitar that had been confiscated by a policeman. "We often played hide-and-seek with the cops in those days," said Xu.

Out of a love for music and the desire to "do something" for migrants, Xu, Wang and Wang's friend Sun Heng, a migrant from the central Henan Province, set up a band in 2002. "It was on May 1, the day the Chinese celebrate the annual labor day holiday," said Xu.

Over the past six years they have traveled to many cities, singing for migrants for free. They composed all the songs, mostly rap and rock'n'roll, to depict the migrants' hard work, tough and often tedious life and longing for a better future.

Their songs have been released on two albums, whose combined sales have topped 1 million.

With 75,000 yuan in royalties from their first album, the band settled down in Picun Village in 2005, with a school for migrants' children, which serves also as a night school for migrant workers in the village.

Six months ago, they renovated a former glazed tiles workshop that serves as a club named "home of migrants." In that club, the museum was set up to tell how China's excess rural laborers have eked out a living and fought for their rights in cities during the country's 30 years of reform.

China's reform and opening-up drive started in rural areas in 1978 with collectively-owned farmland contracted to individual families. This freed about 100 million peasants from farm work.

However, until 1984, most of these people were tied to the countryside by a residence-based rationing system for virtually everything, including food. About 63 million of these former farmers were given jobs in the village-run enterprises that mushroomed in those days.

A policy change in 1984 first allowed farmers to find jobs in cities but the massive migration of redundant rural laborers didn't start until after China decided to move to a market economy in 1992.

The rapid inflow of investors created many construction, factory and mining jobs, most of which urban dwellers consider too tiring or dirty.

The number of migrants grew from 60 million in 1992 to 120 million in 2003 and 210 million this year, according to central government figures shown on a display board at the museum.

The work of the migrant population has generated 21 percent of China's gross domestic product in the past 30 years, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has found.

But few migrant rural laborers feel truly respected, nor do many enjoy city life. The vast majority of them must work overtime and some work seven days a week.

A 2006 survey by National Bureau of Statistics found nearly 40 percent of migrants couldn't spare the time or money to see a doctor when they were ill. More than half spent all their free time either sleeping or watching TV.

Various working identity cards are on display at the Culture and Arts Museum of Migrant Labor in this photo released on October 22, 2008. [Photo:]


Except for the display boards and press clippings, most exhibits at the museum were donated by migrants from across the country: personal letters, residence permits, pay slips, petitions demanding wages held in arrears, and documents that tell of a life beyond many urbanites' imagination.

"Respected managers, I apologize for having dozed off at work on June 8," read the photocopy of a note by Zhao Wenfeng, a migrant worker in Shenzhen.

"I was working nights but had to visit a relative who got injured during the day and therefore didn't have enough sleep ... I'm fully aware it's in violation of the company's rules. I promise I will never make such mistakes again and will put the interest of the company above my own."

The letter seemingly saved Zhao's job at a printing company in Shenzhen, as a photocopy of his work ID suggested. But a letter Qin Mei wrote to her parents in July 1993 amounts to the girl's last words -- she died with 86 co-workers when their toy workshop caught fire four months later. She was 16.

"Dear Mom and Dad, I've made 350 yuan this month and plus what I saved from last month, I've mailed home 400 yuan. Please make sure you repay my third uncle the 100 yuan we owe him," Qin wrote. Her signature reads "your good-for-nothing daughter."

More than 400 migrants were trapped when a short circuit caused a fire at the Hong Kong-invested company where Qin worked in Shenzhen on Nov. 19, 1993. Rescuers found three of the building's four exits had been blocked and the only passageway to the one working exit was a mere 80 cm wide. Most victims suffocated to death near the exit.

Until 2005, the migrant population was largely unprotected in cities. Without any trade union to represent them, many had to work long hours without adequate protection from industrial diseases or accidents.

A primary school student told of the hardship her parents endured in Beijing with a pencil drawing: her father, wearing a helmet, sweated as he toiled at a construction site under the blazing sun, while her mother was busy cleaning the floor in front of a gleaming office building.

"Dear Mom and Dad, you've sweated so much to support the family," wrote Huang Ruixin, who studied at a privately-run school for migrants' children.

In Huang's drawing, which was carefully framed and hung on the museum's wall, even a small bird was shown in tears.

While most migrants willingly endured any hardships to put food on the table, even the strongest despaired when their wages were cut unfairly or held in arrears.

Wang Binyu, a peasant from the northwestern Gansu Province, stabbed four relatives of his foreman to death in 2005, when his pleas for the year's 5,000 yuan in wages were repeatedly ignored. Wang desperately needed the money to help his father, who had a broken leg.

Wang was sentenced to death. "Even prison is a better place than the construction site where I worked," Wang said before he was executed.

The temporary residence permits displayed at the Culture and Arts Museum of Migrant Labor in this photo released on October 22, 2008. [Photo:]


Compared with Wang, 42-year-old Li Xingyuan is just as firm but takes another approach. The senior carpenter from the northwestern Shaanxi Province plans to take his former employer, Li Feng Furniture Co. Ltd., to court.

The company, which is located in the same village near Beijing as the migrants' museum, fired Li in September. He rushed to a railway station in the capital one morning to stop his teenage daughter from being abducted onto a train. He went without the permission of his boss.

"I know I should've asked for permission beforehand ... but it was such an emergency. It was 5 a.m. and no one answered the phone," Li said.

Li asked his wife, who worked at the same factory, to explain to the boss. But when he brought his daughter home and went back to work a few hours late, he was told to pay a 1,000-yuan fine or leave. The couple quit but their boss held two months of their wages -- about 4,000 yuan.

"At first I tried to reason with the managers. At least twice I narrowly avoided being beaten up by the boss and his men," said Li.

Many of Li's co-workers had similar experiences. "Most of them avoided trouble, either by paying a fine or leaving without getting paid."

Li, who lives near Xu's museum and studies law at night school, wants to make a difference. He has filed a complaint at the district's labor bureau. "That's the standard procedure to settle labor disputes -- courts hear only cases that are unsettled at labor bureaus," he said.

Firm as he is about seeking justice, Li is uncertain if or when his boss will cough up his back pay. "The labor bureau will not hear my case until mid-January. By then, I'll have gone home for the Chinese New Year."

That holiday, the most important on the Chinese calendar, falls on Jan. 25. Many migrants are already planning trips home because the traditional holiday comes about two weeks earlier than usual and the businesses where many work are being hit by the global financial tsunami.

But many, like Li Xingyuan, need to get their back wages before leaving.

"Migrants' claims for wages have always been a touchy issue," said Xu.

"Often, they spend lots of time and money getting what they have earned -- and the average cost is three times the amount owed to them, according to a 2004 study on migrants' rights."

China launched a nationwide campaign in 2003 to ensure migrants get paid on time and in full, after Premier Wen Jiabao helped a peasant woman claim her husband's back wages. In 2005, the first trade union for migrants was established in the northeastern Liaoning Province.

Today, Xu and his friends are trying to help migrants the way a trade union would: providing free counseling, working to expose wrongdoing in the media, and training migrants and their children.

Xu said he's relieved to see more migrants have learned to safeguard their rights using the law instead of violence or suicide attempts.

"I hope this year will not end with tragedies like these," Xu said as he pointed to a group of photos showing migrants jumping off high towers and buildings after failing to get their wages. "I hope all migrant laborers will be respected by their employers."

Dang Guoying, a research fellow with the Rural Development Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said he was glad to see the increasing awareness of migrant workers.

"A club run by migrants themselves can play an active role in handling their problems," he said, adding that there are too many people for the workers' unions and the club is a good supplement.

Dang said local governments should cooperate with such organizations, encouraging their growth while maintaining social stability.

Fortunately, in Picun, that suggestion seems to have been followed, as the village government is funding the club and considering ways to find a better site for the museum.

"Respecting the value of labor is our nation's fundamental principle," reads a poster on the wall of the museum, quoting Premier Wen Jiabao.

Editor: Yan

By: Zhou Yan, Bai Xu Source: China View website
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