China: migrant workers like slaves to Olympic projects

By Geoffrey York

In the midst of a massive $40-billion pre-Olympic construction boom, Beijing employers are routinely violating China’s labour law by cheating the migrant workers who provide the muscle for the boom, a new report says.

Beijing, with an estimated 10,000 building sites, is in the midst of the biggest makeover in its history. Huge construction projects are visible all over the city, including new subways, trains, airports, highways and dozens of showcase buildings for the Olympics and beyond.

But the estimated one million migrants, who form 90 per cent of Beijing’s vast army of construction workers, suffer a range of abusive conditions and discriminatory treatment from their employers and the government, says the report released today by Human Rights Watch.

The migrants, mostly from rural regions or small towns, are paid poorly and often cheated of their meagre wages by employers who exploit their vulnerability, the report says.

It says their wages are sometimes delayed by as much as a year, or never paid at all. They are denied access to medical care and other social benefits, and they do not receive accident insurance.

“Workers routinely endure dangerous work environments and lack any safety net, including medical and accident insurance,” the report says. “A dysfunctional government system of redress for workers’ grievances puts those who protest such injustices under threat of sometimes deadly physical violence.”

Even the Chinese government’s own surveys have confirmed the problem. A survey last year found that only 31 per cent of migrant workers were getting their salaries paid monthly, as Chinese law requires. More than half were working without labour contracts and 76 per cent were denied any overtime pay when they worked on public holidays. The survey found that the average migrant construction worker was forced to work for 10 hours a day, 27 days a month, in blatant violation of Chinese law.

The new study by Human Rights Watch found that the migrants often worked for 17 hours a day, or longer, without any overtime pay. Many said they felt like “slaves” or “cattle” because of the working conditions.

“One worker said that he and his co-workers had recently completed a work shift of three successive days, around-the-clock with minimal rest breaks,” the report said, adding that the workers were sometimes roused in the middle of the night to keep working.

Food and housing for the migrants is poor. Their dormitories are often overcrowded, unheated and freezing in the winter. In one dormitory, 20 workers were sharing 10 beds, the report found.

Despite the government’s awareness of the problems, most of them have persisted for years without any official action, partly because of close links between government officials and the state-owned construction companies that dominate the industry, the report said.

Another key issue is China’s system of “residence permits,” which prohibit workers from moving to a city without permission. Of the 150 million migrant workers in China, only 40 per cent are able to get a residence permit.

The Beijing Olympics, which begin on Aug. 8, are putting a spotlight on China’s human-rights abuses. A report yesterday by the U.S. State Department criticized China for its record of police torture, forced relocations, censorship and the imprisonment of journalists and Internet writers.

Public protests are usually crushed quickly in China. Yesterday, the Chinese government acknowledged that Buddhist monks held an anti-government march in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. As many as 300 monks were involved in the march, and as many as 71 of the protesters were detained and briefly jailed, according to human-rights groups. (Globe and Mail)

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