The Chinese New Year, which began Monday, is the Year of the Ox. This is an appropriate metaphor for many of China's estimated 150 million migrant workers, who have pulled the country's economy forward in return for meager compensation under hazardous conditions.
Violations of the rights of migrants have been well-documented by the Chinese government as well as by nongovernment organizations including Human Rights Watch long before the current economic crisis. Migrant workers, particularly construction workers, have been prone to exploitation by employers who deny them legally stipulated labor contracts. Many employers routinely refuse to comply with laws requiring monthly salary payments and instead make migrants wait for an annual salary payment ahead of the Lunar New Year. Such payments are often below official minimum wage standards, and in some cases employers cheat migrants of the entirety of their yearly wages.
Migrant workers, who have played a major role in China's dramatic economic growth over the past three decades, often must live in terrible conditions and have inadequate food as well as unsafe working conditions, which raise their risk of illness and disability. Migrants are denied the right to bargain collectively or form trade unions outside the official All China Federation of Trade Unions, and financial constraints often prevent them from seeking legal redress for owed wages and other labor rights violations.
Research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences indicates that migrants are the front-line victims of the country's economic downturn through mass layoffs in migrant-dominated export manufacturing. China's official National Bureau of Statistics doesn't track unemployment among migrant workers, but Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security data indicate that up to 10 million migrants lost their jobs in 2008 due to the financial crisis. A recent study by China's Tsinghua University suggests that up to 50 million migrant workers will lose their urban jobs in 2009 if the downturn continues.
Rising unemployment will also imperil the education of their children. Although Chinese law decrees nine years of free compulsory schooling, lack of funding for rural educational means that many students in the countryside must pay to attend class. Migrants' remittances to their families in rural areas - which a World Bank study indicated hit $30 billion in 2005 - have been essential in enabling migrants' children to get an education.
The economic crisis also risks amplifying the human rights violations linked to China's discriminatory household registration, or hukou, system. Migrants from the countryside have long been denied social welfare benefits available to residents with urban hukou, including state-sponsored retirement pensions and medical care. Although some municipalities have temporary urban hukou programs, the majority of migrant workers remain deprived of urban hukou-related rights and benefits.
There are also indications that the economic crisis might prompt local governments to turn a blind eye to corporate wrongdoing in the name of protecting jobs and ensuring social stability. On Jan. 6, the Guangdong provincial prosecutor's office issued a statement urging prosecutors not to arrest or detain technical and management staff or legal representatives of firms suspected of involvement in "general" crimes without providing any criteria for such discretion. The Guangdong authorities justified the measure in the name of "protecting normal business operations."
If the Chinese government is sincere about achieving a "harmonious society," then it needs to take a zero-tolerance approach to employment discrimination against migrants and to ensure that employers don't use the economic crisis as a pretext to backslide on their obligations under the Labor Law and the Labor Contract Law. In the Year of the Ox, the government should finally take measures to ease the yoke on the millions of migrant workers who have been the neglected engine of the country's spectacular economic growth.
Phelim Kine is Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.