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Migrant workers, potential to propel social progress
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14:10, February 20, 2009

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By Li Hongmei, People's Daily Online

China's economy thrives on preferential policies, and migrant workers.

For years, the de facto plight of migrant workers has delivered both strain and menace to China's developing economy. But in a long run, the special group branded as migrant workers, or 'Mingong' in its Chinese equivalent, numbering approximately 200 million, could be converted into a reservoir of social wealth and a momentum to push forward the social progress.

But how to address the problems popping up with the increasing number of migrant workers, especially in megacities; and how to tackle the severity facing them with the worsening economic slowdown, will be not merely critical to social stability at the moment, but also pose a tough test to the leadership of governments at different levels and the feasibility of the existing policies and mechanisms.

In the run up to the sessions of National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference to be convened in early March, which coincides with this year's gloomy situation, in which the estimated 20 million or more migrant workers have been driven out of employment after the global financial turmoil forced many factories to close in China, the issue of migrant workers again looms large. And in some provinces and cities with millions of them flooding in each year, it has for days been a very hot topic not just confined to the official level discussions, but well covered in website forums and postings.

One of the focus debates is whether to abolish the system of migrant workers, alongside the term which is thought to belittle them. People who support for the abolishment are based on the simple reason that the term used to identify the group does harm to the human dignity of migrant workers by making them feel alienated from the mainstream society. The term could also be interpreted as a marking of disgrace or even a slur imposed on their children, as the migrant workers in China have already seen their third generation since they first set foot in the urban life three decades ago.

The first generation of migrant workers, mostly from the impoverished rural areas, was always found making a living in sweatshops and construction sites in the country's booming eastern cities. At the initial stage of China's massive industrialization and urbanization, they inevitably fell victim to the shortage of protection measures. Many had suffered exploitation from unscrupulous employers who flouted safety rules and withheld salaries. In 2007, NPC passed a labor law giving a great protection to workers' rights, a severe penalty to work-place abuses and a heavy fine to delay of payment, and things have been looking up since then. But due to the fact that migrant laborers are loosely organized and widely scattered, there are still many who have yet to be embraced by the protection package.

On top of the poor work and living conditions, migrant workers are regularly stigmatized by city dwellers who blame them for almost everything from crowded buses to street crime. Even today, migrant workers are still marginalized by their adopted cities, not only because they have to settle in the margin of the city, but more because they are usually poorly educated and trained and tend to do the low-end jobs on low pays. Their children and grandchildren will in all likelihood follow in their footsteps growing up into a new generation of migrant workers as a result of being deprived of access to the best the city could offer. It was not until last year that some municipal governments staged a favorable policy safeguarding the education rights to the migrants' descendants, and more and more local public schools have since been open to them.

It is of no exaggeration to say China's economy thrives on migrant workers. It is this special group of people who have shed tears and blood in the modernization of China's megacities that a splendid city skyline comes into being. As far back as 30 years ago, they left farmland for a better life in city; and for all these years, their personal growth has been keeping pace with the development of the city. Their root has been well embedded in the city. With the quickened tempo of urbanization, and with the implementation of policies allowing them to transfer and lease out their land, more farmers will flock to cities and join the army of migrant workers.

In no sense are they supposed to be taken as a burden on urban economy. They are, the other way around, a contributor to city prosperity. There have been strong appeals recently for a more just and open society, and the treatment of migrant workers will be considered a yardstick to measure a city's civilization level. The Chinese government is trying to open up more channels than ever to absorb the surplus rural labors into the process of urbanization.

The Hukou system, the system of residency permits, is also facing challenge with population flow in such a frequency. The system, established immediately after the founding of P.R. China in 1949, and which has been used as an effective way to restrict and regulate population flow by means of household registration, appears to be out-of-date for now, and in an urgent need of modification so as to remove roadblocks to the free flow of working people. But it will take time to see fruits as expected.

Some encouraging news came, however, as the government announced it would extend aid to more than 10 million migrant workers this year. All China Federation of Trade Union said Tuesday the governmental effort aimed to cover about 5 million migrant workers with employment assistance, such as job training and vocational instructions, and help the other 5 million safeguard their legal rights or offer them living assistance.

Despite the facts that the influx of migrant workers into the city exerts some strain upon the city's management and capacity for the time being; and more important, it still takes time and patience for the migrant workers to gain adequate respect and acknowledgement from city dwellers, and they may for a time feel alienated and excluded from the city life, nobody could deny their share in boosting local economy and their contribution to the social wealth. If viewed in a long term and from other perspectives, there exists a potential momentum among the migrant workers, which will act as a driving force to propel China's social and economic development. No wonder the policy makers, vowing to be service-oriented, will be keen to place high on their agenda the issue of migrant workers before setting the basic formula for the country's development blueprints.

On account of this, chances for migrants look good in prospect, when all the obstacles posed to them will finally be removed, giving way to an unhampered social progress.

The article represents the author's view only. It does not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

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