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China's growing underclass

Slums that house migrant workers are coterminous with brand-new housing estates built for urban dwellers.

Slums that house migrant workers are coterminous with brand-new housing estates built for urban dwellers.

© HEPEP•China

1 مارس 2007

Internal migrant workers in China are paying the cost of the country’s economic "miracle". Most find themselves denied their rights -- shut out of the healthcare system and state education, living in appalling, overcrowded conditions and routinely exploited by their employers.

An estimated 150-200 million Chinese rural workers are currently living and working in cities and that number is expected to continue to grow. While they make up the majority of the population in some cities, they are treated as an urban underclass discriminated against under the hukou (household registration) system, which requires them to register with local authorities as temporary residents.

"[T]he lives of migrant workers are miserable. They have to live in makeshift shelters, eat the cheapest bean curd and cabbage. They have no insurance and their wages are often delayed. And most of all, they are discriminated against by urban people,” says one of the lucky internal migrants to became a successful businessman -- Wang Yuancheng of China’s National People’s Congress.

Those who manage to complete the often laborious hukou process face discrimination in housing, education, healthcare and employment on the basis of their temporary status. The many who are unable to complete the process are left with no legal status, making them vulnerable to further exploitation by police, landlords, local residents and employers.

According to an International Labour Organization report, a random check on 134 companies by the Labour Department of Suizhou City in Hubei revealed that not a single one had issued any labour contracts.

Ms. Zhang, a 21-year-old internal migrant worker who worked in nine different factories within the space of four years, recalls her experience working 7 days a week in a garment factory in Shenzhen: “We worked overtime every day and the earliest we would get off of work would be around 11 p.m. Sometimes we would work until two or three in the morning and we would have to work the next day as usual. We started at 7:30 a.m. until 12 noon.

"They said that we had half an hour for lunch and a rest, but, in fact, as soon as we finished eating, we would go back to work. There was no rest break. The best day was Sunday when we only had to work overtime until 9:30pm. Really, we were exhausted. Some even fainted, because they were so tired.”

Employers take advantage of internal migrants' vulnerable status by withholding the equivalent of billions of US dollars in unpaid wages. Internal migrants are typically owed 2-3 months back pay. In practice, this means that an internal migrant worker who quits his or her job loses a minimum of 2-3 months of wages. Because the vast majority of internal migrant workers do not have a labour contract, they do not have recourse to legal action to claim their unpaid wages.

Housing conditions are poor to appalling. One 21-year-old man described sharing a room with more than 30 people sleeping in bunk beds in an unfinished underground storehouse without a window, showers or air ventilation. He said that they were only allowed to take a shower or bath at a nearby building once a week.

Not only are internal migrant workers unable to obtain health insurance and typically unable to pay the cost of healthcare, they are also frequently prevented from even accessing medical facilities by their bosses. According to a 26-year-old male worker,

"We don't go to hospitals usually. No time. Once I was really sick, but the work schedule was very tight. I was very sick and almost in a coma, but I was only in the hospital for half a day and got one shot and I had to return to work after that."

Amnesty International is calling on the Chinese government to ensure that the rights of its citizens are not violated and to reform the houkou system and also push local authorities to implement existing laws that are meant to ensure healthcare, fairer conditions of employment and free primary education.