Chinese migrant worker has little to celebrate on Labour Day

As tears trickle down her rough-worn face Zheng Shimei is a picture of despair and in no mood to celebrate the Labor Day holiday.

Squatting on the concrete square outside Xiamen's train station, the 45-year-old from a mountain village in southwest China, stares blankly at the swarm of urban residents flowing in and out of the shopping mall looking for holiday bargains.

While International Labor Day is a week-long holiday in China, Zheng feels none of the festive spirit. She's one of China's 120 million rural migrant workers toiling in cities and her experience represents the sad tale told by many of them.

She and her husband actually had to escape from a sportswear factory in Fujian Province, where she spent 14 hours a day, six days a week polishing shoes that were destined for trendy shops in the malls of the developed world.

"I am done with it. This is the first time I've worked in the city and it will likely be my last. I am going home." groaned Zheng. She had planned to be her family's money earner until her daughter finished nursing her baby and was ready to join the migrant forces.

As she waited for her train the tears started to roll as she figured out that her two months of toil provided her with just enough money to get home. Her factory was still holding a month's worth of wages, which she'll probably never see.

Her piece-work wages earned her less then two fen or two Chinese cents a pair. To make one cent U.S. she had to clean and polish almost five pairs of shoes. If she worked non-stop at the mindless job she could put the finishing touches on 30,000 pairs of the 100-dollar sneakers and earn about 500 yuan (65 U.S. dollars) a month.

The worst of her story, however, is not the terrible wages, which even for China's low-cost labor market were despicably low.

Zheng complains most about the abuse her bosses hurdled at her.They frequently deducted wages for the smallest error, and verbally and physically harassed her.

"The managers were crude. They even made me work when I was sick," she said, adding that guards prevent production-line workers from leaving the factory if they didn't have management authorization. She and her husband had to sneak past sleeping guards in the early morning of May Day before catching a bus to Xiamen.

To make matters worse, Zheng says the assembly-line was constantly short of workers, as are many such factories.

In a country with tens of millions of surplus rural laborers, it appears that for at least some the lure of earning hard-to-come-by cash to take home to the countryside is loosing its lustre when it costs them their dignity.

Before China's late leader Deng Xiaoping unleashed market economy reforms in 1978, workers and peasants were paramount, and honest, hard work was glorified. When the government of the day allowed some areas to get rich first, it likely never imagined that unethical employers would interpret the new opening up and reform as a license to disregard basic human values.

More likely leaders of thirty years ago had in mind the life being led by Liu Hua and her husband Ren Fuwen. They're from the agricultural province of Anhui in central China. They're upbeat and excited as they bicycle with their five-year-old son along this city's coastal park.

They've been in Xiamen for three years and Liu now works as a receptionist at the International Conference and Exhibition Centerwhile her husband makes stainless steel furniture for a private company in the outskirts of the city.

She's enjoying a seven day holiday and her husband has three days off. "We also plan to do some shopping and look for some fat discounts," said a beaming Liu, adding that she has no plans to return to the countryside as long as she has a good job in the city. She knows she's one of the lucky ones.

"The fate of migrant workers is largely at the mercy of the boss. Thankfully we have trustworthy employers," Liu said.

The plight of many migrant workers made headlines in 2003 when

Premier Wen Jiabao demanded that overdue wages be paid to migrant workers.

China's leaders today know they must solve a string of work place problems. The country's legislature is also reviewing the third draft of a new labor law. The law will require employers to provide written contracts, promote more active trade unions andrequire employers, such as real estate developers, to deposit money to cover wages before they start construction.

Cities are also seeing the need to promote more equality for the masses of imported workers. Urban centers continue to strugglewith the implications of providing millions of migrant workers with permanent residency status, which would entitle them to costly social services.

While that debate has yet to be resolved in Xiamen, city leaders provided a perk during the holiday for migrant workers.

From May 1 to May 3 the government set up a bank of some 40 fix-lined telephones near a park where migrant workers often picnic. Under a banner "Hearts connected with migrant workers", the city provided free long-distance calls.

It was a small gesture that at least indicated awareness of a much larger problem.

"Only about 10 percent of the rural-worker disputes we dealt with over the past year had signed contracts," said Shi Fumao, a lawyer with the Beijing Legal Aid Office for Migrant Workers -- one of the few organizations that offer free legal advice.

"In rural communities, it's a tradition that people trust each others' oral commitment," Shi said. In the big city however migrant workers that don't have written contract sometimes can't even prove they had ever worked for a boss who refuses to pay.

Exhausted and heartbroken, Zheng Shimei squats at the train station, knowing little about lawyers and labor legislation. She does know she was mistreated and that a lot will have to change before she ever returns to help build a city.

"I haven't told my daughters how I suffered and I am not going to. I'll bury this experience," said Zheng as her tears turn to sobs against a backdrop of shops blaring merry music and smiling girls dancing in front of a Mcdonald's.


People's Daily Online ---