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AFP: China's army of migrant workers stranded in winter freeze
4 February, 2008
China Labour Bulletin appears in this article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.
GUANGZHOU, China (AFP) — For Luo Qingming, returning to his village in central China for the New Year holiday is the one bright spot in a year full of back-breaking work and low pay.
But this year, instead of heading home, the 42-year-old factory worker is one of thousands of migrant labourers stranded at the main railway station in the southern city of Guangzhou, a victim of China's worst snowfalls in decades.
"I have no money to buy myself a blanket to keep warm at night. I've spent days sleeping rough at a bus station," Luo said as he puffed on a cheap cigarette. "I don't have money to buy myself a proper meal, let alone rent a hotel room."
China's enormous army of migrant workers -- many of whom are already downtrodden -- are among the hardest hit by the heavy snow and freezing conditions that have wreaked havoc across large swathes of the country.
A fixture of the nation's economy for millennia, the workers are credited with constructing the Great Wall of China and rebuilding the capital Beijing, under orders from ambitious Ming emperors in the early 15th century.
Today, numbering between 100 and 200 million, this anonymous mass of factory and sweatshop workers have played a vital role in China's transformation into a modern, booming, export-driven economy.
"To me, these people are the muscle that powers China's economic growth," said Alexandra Harney, whose book on the workers, "China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage", is to be released next month.
"They are the real pistons driving the country, making up the majority of construction workers, coal miners and people working in factories," she said.
Their contributions, however, often go unrecognised, and many suffer discrimination and a lack of rights. Working mostly for low pay in often poor conditions, they are often denied access to basic services such as medical care and schooling for their children.
"In busy periods, they will work all the way through the night," said Robin Munro, director of research at Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, which campaigns for improved workers' rights on the mainland.
"The workers are treated as second-class citizens in the cities, who see them as dirty and the cause of crime," said Munro.
"They cannot bring their families to the city. They often have no health care, even though it should be supplied by the factory."
For some, separation from loved ones is the hardest part.
Lured by the promise of much higher incomes than those offered in poor rural areas, most pack up and move hundreds of kilometres away to work in booming areas, such as the industrial hub of Guangzhou.
Many return to see their families just once a year, usually at New Year, the most important holiday in China.
With snowfalls disrupting rail lines and highways and closing airports ahead of this year's holiday, the frustration, and at times desperation, of workers trying to get home was evident at Guangzhou Railway Station.
"I only have 10 annual days off each year, and I must use all of the days to see my family as I don't see them enough," said Wang Hesan, a worker at a factory in nearby Shunde, as he waited for a seat on a train.
"I have friends, family, my children, and parents back home. I have to go back. I will wait here as long as I can. I have no family here. It's meaningless to stay here. It's no fun being on your own."
A recent survey of 30,000 migrant workers, conducted by Shanghai's Fudan University, showed less than eight percent were satisfied with their lives, mainly because they thought there was little hope of improvement.
The average monthly wage for a migrant worker reached 1,200 yuan (165 dollars) in 2007, up 200 yuan over the previous year.
But 22 percent said they were unable to save anything, their wages only enough to cover living expenses.
Despite the bleak results, experts argue that the nation's booming factories and industries have lifted many Chinese, particularly from rural areas, out of desperate poverty and sent much-needed money home.
"The money that makes its way back to the countryside funds schools. They have lifted the standard of living for so many people in rural China," Harney said.