March 2, 2007

Amnesty International's New Report Reveals the Human Cost of the China Economic "Miracle"

Amnesty International's New Report Reveals the Human Cost of the China Economic "Miracle"

March 1, 2007

(Washington, DC) - The millions of migrant laborers who are fueling China's economic growth are treated as an urban underclass, according to China Internal Migrants: Discrimination and Abuse - The Human Cost of an Economic "Miracle", a new report by Amnesty International. Despite recent reforms, these migrants are shut out of the health care system and state education, live in appalling, overcrowded conditions and are routinely exposed to some of the most exploitative working conditions.

"China is becoming an economic powerhouse but at a severe cost - rural migrant workers toiling and living in wretched conditions throughout China's booming cities," said Larry Cox. "These people suffer some of the nastiest abuse experienced in the labor force. Many slog under extreme hazardous settings and are forced to work long hours even when sick."

Migrants are also discriminated against by local government regulations because they are not considered permanent urban residents. These laborers are denied housing benefits and health insurance, and their children usually cannot attend the local schools.

There are approximately between 150-200 million rural workers who have moved to China's cities in search of work and the number is expected to rise in the coming decade. In some urban areas these workers make up the majority of the population.

Internal migrants are required to register as a temporary resident with local authorities under the hukou (household registration) system. Those who manage to complete the often laborious process still face discrimination in housing, education, health care and employment on the basis of their temporary status. Those that cannot complete the process are left with no legal status, making them vulnerable to exploitation by police, landlords, employers and local residents.

"It is imperative that China's central government reform the hukou system and urge local jurisdictions to enforce current regulations that are intended to provide basic rights for everyone, including migrant workers," said T. Kumar, Amnesty International USA advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific.

Managers use a variety of tactics to prevent workers from resigning. Internal migrants are typically owed back pay, meaning those who quit their job lose at least 2-3 months' wages. Employers often purposefully withhold wages before the Lunar New Year to ensure workers come back to their jobs after the holiday period -- meaning millions of migrants are unable to buy train tickets home for the holidays. Managers often illegally force workers to pay a deposit to prevent those switching jobs. Because of their insecure status under the hukou system, internal migrants are not likely to complain.

Such tactics allow managers to deal with the growing labor shortage without having to raise wages. This helps explain why wages have not risen significantly in response to labor shortages, as one would expect under normal market conditions.

One migrant, 21-year old Ms. Zhang, worked in a clothing factory on the outskirts of Beijing. The workers had not been paid for 3 months, and they decided to cut their losses and leave. But they were locked into the factory and needed permission slips to leave. Finally one of them stole the key to the gate and they left en masse so the guard couldn't hold them back. Ms Zhang recounted: "At the time, we were really pleased with ourselves... In fact, there were those in our group who had lost four months of wages."

Millions of children of internal migrants are also affected and struggle to get a decent education. In many areas they are effectively shut out of state schools by their parents' lack of local hukou registration, by charges levied exclusively on migrants or by high school fees.

"Even though the Chinese central government has pledged free primary education for all children, local schools still charge fees that most internal migrants cannot afford," said Cox. "To sustain its burgeoning economic power, China must ensure the next generations are sufficiently prepared for the future, and the best training begins with an education."

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