China’s Migrant Workers – Hopeless Victims of the Economic Miracle

Last week I went through one of my most interesting experiences yet in regard to China, as I helped a poor young fellow in Beijing who had been stiffed by his big multinational employer.

Actually, all I did was offer moral support and some counsel. But I watched day by day as this 24-year-old refused to give in, stood his ground, prepared a detailed letter on how China labor law proved his case — and you know what? He pulled it off. He brought this big famous company to its knees, David and Goliath style. He did his homework, he knew the arbitration procedures and he knew when the company refused to give him a settlement offer in writing that they were committing an offense. Knowledge is power, and my friend won.

Which brings us to the subject of this post, the migrant workers who are lured to cities like Beijing where they are exploited, to the point of their lives being ruined. These people have no knowledge of the law, no tools or resources. They are China’s damned.

This is a horrible story; The bottom line is that these poor young men work for months on immense construction projects in the coastal cities, and then they are never paid. When authorities investigate, some corrupt contractor shows the forged receipts proving he’s paid them, and that’s that. (The authorities probably get their cut as well.) And there’s nothing for the poor fucked peasants to do except cry.

(I know that somewhere this fits in with the recent discussions we’ve been having on a number of blogs in regard to the Chinese and how whoever has the power seems to be by divine right the victor in all circumstances, no matter how grotesque their acts of evil.)

My friend, with a university degree and good connections, was able to make a difference and force a company to live up to the law. But the disenfranchised migrant workers — to whom can they turn? As the article indicates, this is no trivial issue, with as much as $40 billion owed to itinerant laborers throughout the country.

Mr. Gao is the poor sap who convinced his friends in their poor village to come with him to work in the city:

They are all stranded in the capital, and as team leader, Mr Gao feels responsible for their fate.

“We have got no money at all,” one of them says. “Not a cent.”

For Gao Mingyu, there are few options left. Last year he borrowed $2,000 for his daughter’s education, and the interest on that is increasing all the time.

He has not seen her since he first left home to find work in the capital.

And when he thinks about his 70-year-old mother waiting for him at home, he breaks down.

“I would sacrifice my life to get that money back,” he sobs.

His story is all too familiar – it’s estimated millions of others are in the same position.

And it is tales like this that breed resentment against China’s leaders who – despite issuing orders – seem powerless to improve life for the victims of the country’s economic boom.

Let them eat cake.

UPDATE: I see Stephen beat me to it on this. And with far fewer words.

The Discussion: 5 Comments

This is the kind of thing that will be the eventual undo-ing of the system. A corrupt state cannot function effectively forever, even if it is a totalitarian police state. China is still dominated by it’s peasant population and the CCP are aware of the need to keep them happy. Their problems will really start if the masses wake up to the raw deal they get. This is just one example.

The problem with implementing rule of law in a place like China is it gets in the way of “business”.

January 22, 2004 @ 10:00 am | Comment

Richard: I’m linking to this because I think some of my readers might like it. Comparing the 24-year-old who won his case with Gao who most likely won’t is a great way of showing how knowing about labour law is a key element in ensuring your rights. Of course, people like Gao know the law too (or enough to know how they’re being screwed) and are beaten down – as Simon says – by a system that won’t put workers’ rights on a level footing with business. But in some cases – and they’re growing – workers do win and do collect their back pay (or whatever). But in the vast majority of cases, workers simply take what’s given and resentment builds. And there’s a lot of it out there. The Party well understands worker resentment is time bomb and they’re scrambling to defuse it. Stories like Gao’s don’t go a long way in showing they’re having much success.

January 22, 2004 @ 1:58 pm | Comment

China: Migrants battle for wages

As long ago as November, I started commenting on migrant wages in arrears. In early December, I suggested that although mainland media coverage of the issue was an annual event, it seemed a bigger story this year than ever before….

January 22, 2004 @ 2:04 pm | Comment

Raw Deals in China

Just commenting on a recent article I browsed over at the Peking Duck, it referred to the plight of migrant workers in China who are attracted to the more prosperous costal cities in search of work and better salaries. Migrant…

January 24, 2004 @ 5:34 pm | Comment

Stephen, do you think the government is making much headway in defusing the ticking timebomb? The populist approach Wen and Hu are taking hardly seems to be making a dent.

January 26, 2004 @ 10:48 am | Comment

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