China: stranded migrant workers expose home truths

by Antoaneta Bezlova

(IPS) – The extent to which China’s miracle economy depends on migrant labour has been dramatically displayed over the last week as millions of migrant workers became stranded in devastating snows making their way home for the Lunar New Year holiday.

As Chinese leaders battled to avoid a national crisis, calling in the army and making rare public appearances in overcrowded railway stations, hundreds of thousands of labourers that sustain China’s manufacturing empire were unable to get home for the most important and traditional family reunion of the year that formally starts this week.

Beginning in early January snowstorms paralysed coal-moving railways and highways and continuous freezing rain that quickly turned to ice crushed power lines, causing a power failure in 17 provinces. Coupled with icy weather, the power chaos crippled an already overloaded railway system struggling to handle the homecoming trips of China’s migrant labour force.

Railway authorities estimated that nearly 180 million people would be travelling for the holidays this year.

The Lunar New Year, which begins on Feb.7, remains a part of long tradition that has survived the twists and turns of China’s modernisation. People get together around a big table for a family meal, watching the New Year TV gala and feasting. The highlight of the evening is the preparation of jiaozi — Chinese traditional dumplings — and the excitement of letting off firecrackers and watching the fireworks at midnight.

For Chinese migrant workers, the family reunion on Lunar New Year’s eve is the only time they get a chance to return home and see their families. The official holiday lasts a week but traditionally festivities continue for 15 days, ending with the celebration of the Lantern festival when people light up and parade beautifully shaped lanterns.

Because of the distances involved, many labourers travel back home at least for a couple of weeks, often spending three to four days on trains and long-distance buses.

Shao Gong, who has worked in Beijing for 11 years, says the annual holiday trip to his hometown in Jiangsu province is the only constant thing in his life of construction worker. “I work on various building sites all year round, moving from place to place. I know though that I would spend the lunar festival at home with all my relatives.”

When Shao left home to work on the construction sites in Beijing, his son Niu Niu was three-years-old. “Now he is 14,” he says. “I only get to see him for several weeks a year but I have been able to put him through school.” He even paid for Niu Niu and his mum to visit Beijing.

Some 200 million migrant workers have left the land during the last 30 years of market reforms, finding jobs in the export-processing factories on China’s east and south coast, or the countless small coal mines in the country’s interior and the construction sites of its new cities.

Working long hours for little pay in places far away from home, these migrant labourers have been an important factor behind China’s rise as an economic power. Roughly a third are peasant girls under the age of 28, working for as little as 800 yuan (112 US dollars) a month in the export-processing factories of the Pearl River Delta that have transformed China into the world’s emporium.

China now accounts for 60 percent of global trade in textiles and 70 percent of the trade in toys. Chinese officials predict the country will, in 2008, overtake Germany to become the world’s second largest trading nation. By 2006 already, China had amassed the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves — more than 1.4 trillion dollars now — by running huge and still growing trade deficits.

None of these would have been possible without the army of millions of young Chinese working on assembly lines in the country’s export-processing factories — now stranded and unable to get home.

As of the weekend, at least 300,000 people were stuck in Guangzhou, the hub of China’s southern manufacturing industry. More than 450,000 were reported to have turned in their unused tickets for refunds.

Acknowledging the growing political dimensions of the crisis, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao took to the front lines last week, flying to Guangzhou to address a crowd of hundreds of thousands migrant workers waiting for trains. Speaking through a megaphone, he apologised for the hardships they have been through and promised to get them home as soon as power supply resumed and transportation hurdles were cleared.

Chinese TV showed footage of President Hu Jintao donning a miner’s uniform and safety helmet and descending 400 m underground in a coal mine pit in Shaanxi province to inspect the strained coal supply.

Chinese leaders are mindful of the potential for social unrest as this vast army of migrant workers is increasingly resentful of its low status and poor treatment. With China leading the world in reported industrial accidents, labour experts reckon more than 90 percent of occupational injuries occur to migrant workers.

In the export-processing factories in the Pearl River Delta, factory owners avoid paying not only compensation for injuries but even wages. According to labour expert Su Hainan, in 2007 the migrant workforce was owed a total of some 400 billion yuan (56 billion dollars) in back wages.

The effect of the icy storms is “historically unprecedented”, foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said last week. While Chinese meteorologists say the country has not experienced such freaky weather in 50 years, the magnitude of the crisis derives from the huge number of people affected by it and from its unfortunate timing just before the Lunar New Year.

With little time left before the holiday starts, the government has called in the People’s Liberation Army to help clear the tracks. Across the country, 250,000 army troops and 770,000 paramilitaries have been dispatched to help in regions most affected by the disaster, the ‘China Daily’ reported. (IPS, 2008)


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