China's peasants opt for urban grindstone
China's 80 to 110 million migrants brave tough factory conditions for a once in a lifetime shot at leaving the farm.
(Page 3 of 3)
Fan Wei is from Anhui Province. He doesn't watch TV, perhaps that's one reason he does not know who Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are, China's two top leaders. He misses home terribly but says "there's nothing I can do about it." There were too many family members at home already farming and land is scarce, so he went east. All his pay is sent home to keep his brother in school.Skip to next paragraph
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Migrant experts say that daughters generally have a better remittance rate. The classic pattern is to work two years, come home, get married, and have a baby. Later, many return. "So many who come to [the big cities] don't want to stay on the farm," says a social worker based in Hong Kong.
Migrants' status, usually extra-legal, has been a means for employers and police to take advantage. Technically, the migrants are supposed to sign work contracts that both register them and require the factory to pay a local sum to the city. In practice, few migrants do sign, giving them ambiguous legal standing.
One constant angry complaint voiced by migrants is "withholding." According to labor organizations in Hong Kong, up to $365 million is withheld by managers who restrict pay in exchange for some service, or don't pay at all.
Withholding takes place under a number of schemes. A typical one is the "apprenticeship deal." The migrant works for three months, gets trained, then finds his three months pay was the price of apprenticeship. Another is the hated "ongoing recruiting scheme." In this one, factory conditions are so intolerable that even tough migrants can't take it, and they quit after a few months. The managers refuse to pay them, citing "agreements" to pay at year's end. The migrants just leave, and the manager hires new labor.
Human rights leaders outside China have expressed the hope that the Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao leadership in Beijing, which has claimed a populist identification with ordinary Chinese, will ban the withholding of wages.
Then there is the "police shakedown." Migrants have long been targets for local police, who pick them up and ask for resident papers. When no papers are produced, they ask for bribes in order to avoid detention. Migrants still live in fear of police - mostly in large cities, not neighborhoods like Yang Dai. Vagrancy laws in China have changed following a recent celebrated case in Guangdong where a graphic designer, Sun Chi Gang, was mistaken as a migrant and beaten to death in custody. "We heard of very few problems since the fall," says a Hong Kong source.
Migrant conditions - hours, pay, time off, restrictions, family policies - depend widely on specific variables like the region, the boss, the product being made, the factory. In Guangdong, time off is one or two days a month. But if orders are heavy, migrants may work three months without a day off, according to human rights sources.
Garment factories pay less, and they rely on piecework, so hours are longer. Electronics assembly depends more on the time of year, but in general is more lenient and lucrative. In peak season, technology migrants work until about 10 p.m.
By late January, many migrants working in Fujian have gone home, since bus tickets for the annual China-wide New Year's holiday are cheaper in December.
When asked what they think about during long hours on the assembly line, younger migrants often say money, friends, after-work plans. Older workers usually answer, "family." An increasing number now bring their families east. But many can't. Last year, Zhang Wu brought a DVD player costing $100 to his wife and five year old son in Sichuan for spring festival. This year, he paws through a DVD shop in Yang Dai, picking up gift cartoons. "I really miss my son," he says. "He's what I'm thinking about."
Today's small and medium enterprises:
• Account for 60 percent of all sales.
• Create 57 percent of all profits.
• Pay 40 percent of all taxes.
• Generate 60 percent of total exports.
• Provide jobs to 75 percent of urban residents and most of 200 million rural migrant workers.
Employees in private enterprises:
• 1980 800,000, or 0.2 percent
• 2002 81.5 million, or 11.1 percent
Source: Asian Development Bank, China Statistical Yearbook