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Agence France-presse: Labor rights a mirage for China's rural migrants on May Day

China Labour Bulletin appears in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

Labor rights a mirage for China's rural migrants on May Day

Agence France-presse
1 May 2006

For China's rural migrant workforce that has just reached 200 million people, the utopia that the nation's Communist Party leaders envisage does not apply to them -- even on International Labor Day.

"You must be kidding," construction worker Li Yuntian, 26, said when asked if he would be taking any days off for the official seven-day national holiday that surrounds May Day.

"We work every day, we don't even take Sundays off. As long as they pay us we will work."

Li, who along with about 40 other young men from neighboring Hebei province is helping to build one of the seemingly limitless new skyscrapers in Beijing, said he knew nothing about China's labor laws.

Asked if he knew he was meant to be paid triple time for working on legally mandated holidays, Li simply shook his head.

China is in the midst of an unprecedented process of urbanization that by some accounts will see its city population grow by up to 600 million people by 2050.

According to a just published survey by the Developmental Research Center of the State Council, China's cabinet, the nation's rural migrant labor force rose to 200 million people this year.

The survey found that 120 million rural migrant workers now work in China's cities, while another 80 million are in smaller towns. All of them have left even lower-paying farm life.

Such numbers have made it extremely difficult for the central government to manage the labor market, which in turn has provided near limitless exploitation opportunities for unscrupulous businesses and local authorities.

The government survey showed that 68 percent of employees in China's manufacturing sector and 80 percent in the construction sector were rural migrant workers.

Many of these workers not only face lower salaries and poorer working conditions than their city counterparts, but do not receive social benefits, such as pension plans, schooling for their children or health care.

"According to the law, there is no difference between an urban worker and a rural migrant worker," said Michael Zhang, a labor activist for the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin.

"If you employ workers, you have to abide by the China labor law. You have to pay them overtime and you have to pay social insurance."

But although central authorities have issued reams of policy papers on protecting the rights of the migrant workers, Zhang said local governments seeking higher growth rates and bigger local profits routinely ignored the law.

"The rights abuse that rural migrant laborers face is basically the result of collusion between local governments and enterprises," he said.

Even in Beijing, there is little evidence that the laws for protecting migrant workers rights are being enforced.

"If we asked for social insurance and pensions, we would be fired," said Zhang Duanqi, 38, a construction worker from Heilongjiang province working on a site in Beijing's Chaoyangmenwai business district.

"In China you don't have a choice, you have to take what you can get. Very few workers are complaining, it doesn't pay to complain."

But Zhang, with salaries ranging from 1,200 yuan to 1,800 yuan (149 dollars to 224 dollars) a month and including board and lodging, gave the impression the workers with his team were better off than other migrant laborers.

The State Council survey found 68 percent of the rural migrant workers made monthly salaries of between 300 to 800 yuan.

He Xiao, 21, a security guard from Henan province working at a busy shopping center in Beijing's Chaoyangmenwai business district, provided perhaps a more accurate picture of the plight of China's rural migrant workforce.

"The labor law is a big mirage," He said, explaining he would be working throughout the holiday period with no extra pay.

"The reality is I have a job. I'm paid about 700 yuan a month, they give me neither a food subsidy nor a place to live, so they are not going to give me social security insurance."