The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that China has 150 million migrant workers8 out of a total national working population of 764 million people at the end of 2006.9 More than 40 million of these migrant workers are employed in construction, an industry in which some 90 percent of the workforce is composed of migrants.10 The continuing migration wave is powered by grinding poverty in rural farm communities left-out of the economic boom that has raised urban living standards and by a constant demand for workers to service the insatiable demand for labor on construction sites in the cities.11 The massive inflows of migrant workers from the countryside competing for relatively better-paying construction jobs in Chinas cities ensure a constant supply of fresh laborers on urban building sites.
Chinas government began to address the challenges of the influx of internal migrant workers coming to the cities in search of work following the launch of former Chinese Communist Party Chairman Deng Xiaopings reform and opening of the Chinese economy which began in 1979.12 Early legislation which outlined the need for labor contracts and the need for insurance, fair wages and working hours for migrant workers included the Temporary Regulation on National Enterprises Temporary Worker Management (全民所有制企业临时工管理暂行规定) in 1989 and the State Council National Regulations on Industrial Employment and Contracts for Migrant Workers (国务的<全民所有制企业招用农民合同制工人的规定) which went into effect in 1991.
The movement of migrant workers to the cities has also been accelerated by the closure of thousands of loss-making collective firms and state-owned companies that began in the 1980s and accompanied Dengs economic reforms. The number of workers in privately-owned companies rose to nearly 100 million from 1983-1999, while the number of workers in collective enterprises and state-owned firms shrank by 70 million in the same period.13 Chinas transition from a planned socialist economy to a market economy created a total of 150 million surplus laborers in rural areas in need of new employment opportunities.14
The population of migrant workers in Chinas cities totaled around 150 million in 2007,15 constituting a little over 50 percent of Chinas end-2006 registered urban working population of 283.1 million.16 Migrant workers efforts have contributed 16 percent of Chinas total gross domestic product growth over the past 20 years,17 and have supplied the muscle to carry out the projects funded by the governments massive investment in fixed assets including roads, bridges, buildings, and mass transit systems which in the past two decades have transformed cities including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou into models of modern infrastructure.
Cities provide Chinas migrant workers what they cannot find in their rural villagesreliable, non-seasonal employment which pays relatively high wages. Although China has recorded average annual economic growth of almost 10 percent since 199018 and the government expects gross domestic product to rise 11 percent in 2007.19 The expansion has occurred mainly in the eastern coastal regions, leaving much of the countryside in western and central China mired in poverty. The lure of Chinas cities for migrant workers is reflected in national income statistics. In 2006 the annual per capita disposable income for urban residents was 11,759 Yuan (US$1,568) compared to an annual per capital net income for rural households of 3,587 Yuan (US$478) in the same period.20
Official statistics indicate that wage increases for migrant workers in cities have not kept pace with those of their urban counterparts. A government survey revealed that while the average annual wage income of Chinas urban residents from 1980 to 2004 had risen from 762 Yuan to 16,024 Yuan (US$101.60 to US$2,136.53), migrant workers wage income had experienced no corresponding increase in the same time period.21 The average monthly wage of migrant workers totaled 1,200 Yuan (US$167.13) in 2007, official data issued in January 2008 indicates.22
Migrant workers combine relative youth71 percent are between the ages of 15 and 29and a lack of secondary, let alone higher, education which usually relegates them to manual labor.23 Many migrants work in the booming construction industry: Beijings estimated 10,000 building sites24 employ about one million migrants, an estimated 25 percent of the citys total migrant worker population.25
The vast majority of migrant construction workers come to Beijing and other urban centers by their own initiative, relying only on informal networks of friends to help secure employment.26 The informal nature of migrant construction workers job search and hiring process, outside of a regulated government system of relocation and employment, heightens their vulnerability to exploitation by unscrupulous employers.
Chinas government has highlighted the problems faced by migrant construction workers, particularly employers routine failure to pay owed wages, since a highly publicized encounter in 2003 between a farmer named Xiong Deming and Premier Wen Jiabao in which Xiong begged for Wens personal intervention in recovering back wages owed to her migrant construction worker husband.27 Since then, senior policymakers have made a ritual of annual and semi-annual warnings to employers to ensure that their migrant workers are paid in full and on time before they go back to their homes to celebrate the annual Lunar New Year holiday.
Government attention to the problems faced by migrant construction workers reflects growing official concern that failure to address the problems of Chinas millions of migrant workers could pose a potentially serious threat to social stability and public order.28 This concern is particularly acute in Beijing, where official data indicates that in central Chaoyang district alone the migrant worker population is more than double that of registered urban residents in the area.29 Eighteen percent of all petitionersimpoverished rural residents who come to Beijing seeking legal redress from the central government for grievances unaddressed by local governmentsconsist of migrant workers seeking resolution of contract disputes.30
Chinas state media has issued regular reports that depict the concern and resolve of senior government officials to solve the unpaid and late wage problem. A sampling of such news items includes headlines such as Easing the plight of migrant workers, State Council vows rural laborers to be paid on time, Vice Premier asks for mechanism guaranteeing migrant workers get paid on time, or Government move to tackle problem of delayed construction workers payment.
Despite those statements of official concern, Human Rights Watch research, along with that of government and international organizations, indicates that the government is failing to adequately address the problems faced by migrant construction workers. That failure is rooted in inadequate implementation of official laws to protect migrant workers as well as the prohibition on independent union formation (the ban on workers organizing is discussed below in section V). The government is equally suspicious of and strictly limits the numbers and operations of non-governmental organizations which advocate for migrant workers rights.
The inability of many migrant construction workers to access legally-mandated insurance and social welfare benefits is linked to Chinas household registration system. This system was created through a series of laws and regulations in the early 1950s designed to prevent a flood of impoverished rural dwellers from moving en masse to urban areas. The first of these was the 1952 Decision Regarding the Worker Employment Problems, which placed controls on movements of migrants to the cities.31 In 1958, the Chinese government implemented the Household Registration Rules of the Peoples Republic of China, or hukou system, which imposed stringent controls on rural residents including the need for documentation from an urban-based employer in order to legally relocate to cities and a requirement that rural dwellers register with urban police authorities during any temporary visits to the city of longer than three days.32
The holders of urban household registration permits have long been entitled to social welfare benefits and employment opportunities in the cities that are denied to rural dwellers.33 Chinese urban residents with permits have traditionally been entitled to state-sponsored retirement pensions, quotas of free or subsidized food, guaranteed employment rights, education, and medical care.34Migrant workers who retain their original rural household registration have by definition been ineligible for such benefits.
In the 1980s, municipal governments began to ease the strict controls, including introducing temporary household registration certificates for migrants, in response to the rising demand for industrial labor.35 In 2003, Chinas central government formalized those local initiatives with the State Council Directive Permitting Rural Migrant Workers to Seek Jobs in Cities (国与原办公厅关于做好农民进城务就业管理和服务工作的通知). The directive outlined the use of temporary household registration certificates to facilitate the employment of rural migrants in cities, ended the need for migrants to register with urban police and stipulated that migrants were entitled to legal work contracts, insurance, and protection from wage exploitation.36
Beijings municipal government in 2005 followed up the State Councils directive with rules aimed to eliminate the more onerous aspects of the household registration system, including cancellation of controls on employment and housing, but maintaining the need for rural migrants to acquire temporary residence certificates.37
The hukou system continues to cause problems for migrant workers. In 2005, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights noted its deep concern at the de facto discrimination against internal migrants in the fields of employment, social security, health services, housing and education that indirectly result from inter alia, the restrictive national household registration system (hukou) which continues to be in place despite official announcements regarding reforms.38The Committee called on China to dismantle the system as it had indicated it would.39
Temporary residence permits allow the government to monitor migrants in the cities while continuing to deny them many of the key benefits of permanent urban household registration, particularly medical care. The central government has launched a basic health-insurance network for urban residents, but migrant workers do not qualify as they are not permanent residents.40 The central government announced in November 2007 that it was preparing to issue a directive which would ensure that migrant workers in Chinas cities would get the same free services available to [permanent residents in] areas such as infectious disease prevention and treatment, childrens vaccination and maternity care.41 While such an initiative is to be applauded, the government has not provided any details on the plan nor specified if or how it would be funded and monitored to ensure that migrant construction workers are granted access to such services at local hospitals.
Temporary household registration allows migrant workers the opportunity to apply for the rights to find work and housing on a strictly temporary basis, without the security of permanent household registration. However, even the limited advantages of the temporary household registration system have been of marginal utility to many migrant workers who are either unaware that they can apply for such status or fear that official contact with the urban government bureaucracy may facilitate their ejection from the city.
There are no indications that the Chinese government intends to completely dismantle the discriminatory urban household registration system anytime in the near future. In November 2007, the central government announced in very ambiguous terms, without providing any details, that it plans to Gradually commit to giving migrant workers in stable employment the opportunity for permanent residency status.42 In January 2008, Ma Liqiang, the deputy secretary general of the National Development and Reform Commission, an official policy-formation organ of the Chinese government, indicated that the restrictions of the hukou system would be eliminated by 2020, without giving a specific timetable.43 Therefore, the institutionalized discrimination against rural migrants embodied by the Household Registration System continues.
The lack of effective organizations to monitor and resolve migrant workers labor grievances unaddressed by the government fuels public protests by workers without any other means to seek redress. Unpaid wages remains one of the major causes of industrial protests [in China], with the majority being work stoppages and demonstrations by workers who have exhausted the few avenues available to themlabor bureaus, arbitration and petitions.45
8 International Labor Organization, Equality at Work: Tackling the Challenges. Global Report under the Follow-up of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (Geneva: ILO, 2007), www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/---webdev/documents/publication/wcms_082607.pdf.
9 Statistical Communiqué of the Peoples Republic of China on the 2006 National Economic and Social Development, National Bureau of Statistics, February 28, 2007.
10 All China Federation of Trade Unions Survey Shows Migrant Construction Workers Face Six Large Difficulties, China Industrial Daily News (Beijing), November 5, 2004.
11 Mei Fong, An Invisible Army Builds Beijing, Asian Wall Street Journal (Beijing), December 27, 2006.
12 Banner of Victory, Peoples Daily (Beijing), September 16, 1999.
13 China Labour Bulletin, Conflicts of Interest and the Ineffectiveness of China's Labour Laws- English Executive Summary, October 2007, www.china-labour.org.hk/public/contents/category?cid=5712, (accessed October 29, 2007).
14 All China Free Trade Union Bulletin, Issue 4,June 4, 2006, http://www.acftu.org.cn/0604/htm (accessed October 1, 2007).
15 International Labor Organization, Equality at Work: Tackling the Challenges. Global Report under the Follow-up of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (Geneva: ILO, 2007), www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/---webdev/documents/publication/wcms_082607.pdf.
16 Statistical Communiqué of the Peoples Republic of China on the 2006 National Economic and Social Development, National Bureau of Statistics, February 28, 2007.
17 International Labor Organization, Equality at Work: Tackling the Challenges. Global Report under the Follow-up of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (Geneva: ILO, 2007), www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/---webdev/documents/publication/wcms_082607.pdf.
18 Cooling Fires of Chinas Fast Growing Economy, Xinhua News Agency, October 12, 2007.
20 Statistical Communiqué of the Peoples Republic of China on the 2006 National Economic and Social Development, National Bureau of Statistics, February 28, 2007.
21 Ibid., p. 204.
22 Half of Chinas migrant workers unhappy with social status, Xinhua News Agency, January 13, 2008
23 International Labor Organization, Equality at Work: Tackling the Challenges. Global Report under the Follow-up of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (Geneva: ILO, 2007), www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/---webdev/documents/publication/wcms_082607.pdf.
24 Mei Fong, An Invisible Army Builds Beijing, Asian Wall Street Journal (Beijing), December 27, 2006.
25 Beijing Ponders Construction Workers Future Post-Olympics, Agence France Press, September 19, 2006.
26 Chinas State Council, China Migrant Worker Investigation and Research Report, (中华人民共和国国务院 的 中国农民工调研报告) 2006, p. 365.
27 Wen Jiabao Touches Villagers Hearts, Straits Times (Chongqing), October 29, 2003.
28 Labor Disputes Threaten Stability, China Daily (Beijing), January 30, 2007.
29 Chinas State Council, China Migrant Worker Investigation and Research Report, (中华人民共和国国务院 的 中国农民工调研报告) 2006, p. 365.
31 Decision Regarding the Worker Employment Problem, (《关于劳动就业问题的决定》规定), 1952.
32 Household Registration Rules of the Peoples Republic of China, (中华人民共和国户口当记条例), implemented January 1, 1958.
33 International Labor Organization, Equality at Work: Tackling the Challenges. Global Report under the Follow-up of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (Geneva: ILO, 2007), www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/---webdev/documents/publication/wcms_082607.pdf, pp. 34-35.
34 Chen Wen, In Search of Equality, Beijing Review, November 2005.
36 State Council Directive Permitting Rural Migrant Workers to Seek Jobs in Cities (国与原办公厅关于做好农民进城务就业管理和服务工作的通知, implemented January 5, 2003.
37Beijing Municipal Government Regulations for Management of Migrant Workers and Business People (北京市外来务工经商人员管理条例), March 2005.
38 Concluding Observations of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Peoples Republic of China E/C.12/1/Add.10713 May 2005, para. 15.
39 Ibid., para. 46.
40 Tragedy of a pregnant woman to help poor, Shanghai Daily (Shanghai), December 12, 2007.
41 New rules designed to help 140m migrants, China Daily (Beijing), November 21, 2007, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90776/6306363/html (accessed December 11, 2007).
43 Hukou should be scrapped, China Daily (Beijing), January 23, 2008.
44 International Labor Organization, Equality at Work: Tackling the Challenges. Global Report under the Follow-up of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (Geneva: ILO, 2007), www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/---webdev/documents/publication/wcms_082607.pdf, pp. 34-35.
45 International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Letter from ICFTU general-secretary (unnamed) to Juan Somavia, director-general, International Labor Organization, August 31, 2006, www.ihlo.org/is/000806.html (accessed September 18, 2007).