Helping migrants belong in cities
( 2003-11-28 08:42) (China Dialy)
"Walk away please," said Zhang Youhai, 38, a construction worker in Beijing from Deyang, Southwest China's Sichuan Province.
Zhang and his fellow workers, who worked on an apartment building in southern Beijing, were performers in "Together with Migrants," a performance artwork by artist Song Dong, a native Beijinger.
All half-naked, the 200 migrant workers were divided in two groups - one group of them stood on the window still in their dirty working trousers, with their arms akimbo and legs apart, looking down at the passers-by.
The others formed a square, with green linen bands binding them together at the waist.
The performance, included in an ongoing exhibition, is a bid to raise public awareness about migrant workers, who come to cities from the less developed areas of China.
While trying to seek a better life of their own, they have helped improve the lives of the urban residents and changed the urban landscape by getting jobs like construction workers, restaurant chefs, attendants and domestic workers.
The exhibition, which runs until Sunday at the Today Gallery in Wenhuiyuan Beilu, downtown Beijing, is curated by Yang Xinyi, PhD candidate of art history at Cornell University, United States. It is a joint research-action project between the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) and the Institute of Sociology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
It is worth a visit, as it gives an impressive portrayal of the life of migrant workers.
Reality or "artistic reality" is presented in a shocking way at the exhibition, mostly through photos and videos.
Photos of Wang Jin's performance, "100 per cent," showed migrant workers, a group with their colleagues standing on their shoulders, holding up a roof.
"Chinese avant-garde artists started to focus on the life and plight of migrant workers before most other residents did because they were quick to notice the appearance of a new social phenomenon, and because their living conditions were somehow no better than those of immigrant workers," said Yang.
But the curator forgot to acknowledge the contribution of the 200 migrants attending the exhibition.
"Some artists involved feel themselves in a status much above the migrants, something like a patron, though their financial situation is not necessarily better than the migrants," criticized Zhang Jie, a visiting artist.
The event has also baffled Huang Ping and his co-researchers with the Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), which is a member of the sociological project sponsoring the exhibition.
"It is the first time we have co-operated with artists in our research," said Huang Ping.
"We are not that happy with the exhibition.
"We want to show what the migrants contributed to society, but the artists have only depicted their poverty and desperation," he said.
Aiming at highlighting concern for the migrant workers, the exhibition gives rise to a more fundamental problem - whether we urban residents, including artists, really see a migrant worker as one of "us" - urbanites.
Women in focus
The controversial exhibition attracted much public and media attention for the research-action project "Together with Immigrants" and especially its goal - to better integrate young migrants, especially women, into urban areas.
At least one-third of the migrants are female, and most of them are between 17 and 25 years of age.
The research-action project, aiming to address urban poverty among young and especially women migrants, was launched last year in seven pilot sites - Beijing, Shanghai, Chifeng of North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Dalian of North China's Liaoning Province, Chengdu of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, Kunming and Diqing of Southwest China's Yunnan Province.
A survey of their needs was carried out at the initial stage, and researchers found that besides material poverty, many migrant workers, especially women, suffer from "psychological poverty" as they feel lonely and isolated in urban areas, said Genevieve Domenach-Chich, a UNESCO project team leader.
"A migrant woman in her 30s told me her dream was to enter a restaurant without being considered a mingong (migrant worker), but as someone else, as a decent urban resident," Domenach-Chich said.
Research showed the migrant workers are very much marginalized and have the potential to become an increasingly isolated social group, said Zhan Shaohua, a research member.
In Chengdu, the project team had to give up efforts to have community workers train the migrant men and women. The failure was partly because community workers are much more enthusiastic about permanent residents and partly because most migrants thought it impossible or even refused to integrate themselves into urban communities, said fellow researcher Pan Jie, also a research member.
To facilitate the "re-socialization" of migrants, a positive flow of them within the city should be encouraged, said Zhan. Almost all migrant women in Beijing from Chifeng were first engaged in domestic service, but when interviewed, none of them said they would stay long in the sector.
They wished for jobs that require more skills and offer more leisure and pay, such as typists or cooks, said Zhan.
However, it's difficult for them to realize their wishes. Most of them must send a large chunk of their income home in Chifeng, and the inexpensive, suitable training programmes are scarce. Above all, domestic workers work 10 to 14 hours a day and have on average two days off a month.
Fortunately some local authorities have realized the importance of training for migrant workers.
In Dalian, the public securities bureau, which found that most crimes committed by migrant workers were against their bosses, is providing shelter and giving a free course that offers migrants a chance to improve their skills and knowledge of legal issues for protecting their own rights.
Taking advantage of the existing programmes, the researchers in the joint project are taking action to build a social support network in each pilot site, involving social workers, non-governmental organizations (usually the local women's federation) and local authorities, said Huang Ping.
In Chifeng the women's federation has been the main force in building a three-level support system in rural areas, Chifeng and Beijing.
Under the project, potential migrants learn about what to expect about urban life and about job opportunities, and the researchers help with the communication between the migrant workers' families and the "migrant workers' homes the researchers helped build in cities.
Two migrant workers' homes have opened in Chifeng and in Beijing. Social workers are meeting migrants on their arrival at the station, providing temporary accommodation, helping to find jobs and sign employment contracts, offering training and legal consultation, organizing activities on weekends and carrying out surveys on the workers' living and working conditions.
"Besides skills training, we have added training on legal awareness and on urban life, such as how to use electric appliances, how to cross streets without getting hurt and how to use medicine," said Domenach.
"We don't think the migrant workers, especially women can have much more pay in the near future since actually they are already paid better than most farmers," Huang said. "We hope the training can lead to less spending - they are expected to spend less on such aspects as medical care and legal conflicts."
The migrant workers are expected to flow in such ways that a small number finally stays in big cities they work in, for instance, Beijing, Shanghai or Chengdu while a small number returns to villages, said Zhan. The majority would return to smaller cities near their hometown.
Still the majority of them would finally be together with "us," he said.
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