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Migrants, unsung heroes of China’s reform, demand their share

by Peter Harmsen*

Cheng Yuan gets up at 6:00 am and goes to sleep 12 hours later in his crammed dormitory, too exhausted to watch any TV after a day on his Beijing building site — and he considers himself lucky.
In a good month, the 35-year-old can make 3,000 yuan, more than twice the amount he could hope for at home in rural Henan province, hundreds of kilometres away.
But the emotional cost is huge — he gets to see his teenage son twice a year at most.
"He misses his dad, that goes without saying. But I've got no other choice," said Cheng, who has been a construction worker for his entire adult life, and would not know what else to do.
There are 120 million Chinese like Cheng, who have left unemployment and poverty in the countryside in search of better lives in the bustling cities.
They are the unsung heroes of the nation's reform era, assuming all the jobs that city dwellers shun as too dirty or too dangerous, but an increasing number of them are now demanding to be heard.
"It's fair to say that the migrant workers have been the engine that's been driving China's whole growth rate," said Russell Smyth, an economist with Australia's Monash University, who specialises in China's migrant workers.
"The urban population that's so much better off now than they were 30 years ago probably wouldn't be as well off if it wasn't for the efforts of the migrant workers."
For more than two decades after reform kicked off in China, the migrants were too weak to get anything approaching a fair share of the wealth that fast economic growth had brought to the country.
But over the past four years they have been able to push up their salaries — in some cases by as much as 80 percent — as severe labour shortages along the industrialised east coast have suddenly made them more valuable.
The cities have been expanding fast, requiring ever-larger amounts of manpower, making it harder to fill the sweatshops and construction sites where the nation's economic future was being forged.
"In the past, migrant workers did not have many options as there was almost an infinite supply of labour," said Du Yang, a Beijing-based labour economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the top government think tank.
"At least now they can vote with their feet and change jobs if they are not happy," he said.
To some extent the migrants can also thank the current government under President Hu Jintao, which has made it a priority to boost the countryside, enabling large numbers of migrants to find jobs at home.
Recent massive public spending on the rural areas has helped lift growth in the countryside, opening up new employment opportunities there.
But as China prepares for one of the worst economic crises in the post-reform period — the World Bank warns of growth at a 19-year low in 2009 — they may again see their advantages eroded.
"The slowdown in the world economy means migrants are not in the same bargaining position," said Smyth.
If that is the case, they will have to rely on government policies to improve their lot.
The central government has introduced new measures to benefit the migrants, including the right to life-long employment after 10 years with the same company.
"The problem is that generally those regulations are not enforced. I think it's very difficult for the central government to do a lot beyond that," said Smyth.
Ultimately, however, time is on the side of the migrants, as manpower shortages are likely to become worse with weakening population growth.
"After all, the economic crisis is a short-term factor while the labour shortage is the result of long-term factors," said Du of the Beijing think tank.
"China's labour market may see some fluctuations in the short term but the labour shortage is here to stay for the long term."