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Respecting rights of migrant workers
China Daily  Updated: 2005-09-20 06:28

The People's Daily published yesterday a set of statistics that reveal the reality of the country's large migrant worker population.

The growing source of labour consists of 120 million rural workers that contribute more than 530 billion yuan (US$65.4 billion) a year to local economies outside their hometowns.

The flow of labour from rural to urban areas has helped many families considerably increase their income.

According to the statistics, on average, a migrant worker from a rural area earned an annual income of 6,471 yuan (US$798) last year. Though still about one-third short of the per-capita disposable income urban residents enjoyed, the sum was unequivocally a great improvement on the net income of 2,936 yuan (US$362) of the average rural resident.

As the majority of migrant workers send money they have earned to those they leave behind, a solution to the country's widening income gap seemingly falls into place. If more rural labourers could find jobs in urban areas, the dire situation of farmers only earning about one quarter of what their urban cousins make will be improved over time.

This is largely the logic behind the country's ongoing efforts to speed up urbanization.

The statistics the People's Daily published surely bear testimony to some encouraging progress made on this inevitable course.

Yet, although the figures help outline a general overview succinctly, an obvious disadvantage of the statistics is that they do not vividly mirror the real living conditions of those surveyed.

While giving credit for all the work governments at all levels have done to facilitate the free flow of migrant workers to urban areas, we have to face the tremendous challenge of rapidly and effectively improving these transient labourers' living conditions.

Public debates over how a murder committed early this year by a migrant worker named Wang Binyu cast some light on the lack of effective legal remedies for this underprivileged group.

Out of rage and despair, the young man killed four people and seriously injured another after failing to get his back payment after asking the courts and labour department for help.

The misery of the migrant worker himself aroused some public sympathy, leaving legal experts arguing intensively over the death sentence he was given. A capital punishment for such a killer was typical for a legal system that is supposed to deliver justice for society.

But the unfairness many people feel for the poor and helpless migrant worker requires second thoughts about this specific case.

Aside from the legislative dilemma of how to strike a convincing balance between penalizing the criminal and promoting social justice, the case revealed an open wound our society has yet to heal.

As a disadvantaged group in the labour market, migrant workers are in an inferior position when negotiating with their employers. Defaults on payment are common in many places, particularly on construction sites where migrant workers account for nearly 80 per cent of the labour force.

A widely publicized national campaign against defaults on payment for migrant workers was launched at the end of 2003 when a woman in rural Sichuan complained face-to-face to Premier Wen Jiabao about her husband's back payment.

Subsequent media reports showed that numerous migrant workers have since benefited from the government-led campaign to defend their right to be paid in full and on time for their hard work.

Nevertheless, the recent tragedy caused by a failure to honour the worker's agreement revealed the bitter fact that government efforts alone are not enough.

To provide lasting and prompt protection for migrant workers, trade unions must assume a bigger role in defending workers' rights. The legal system should also be enabled to bark at and bite into those who dare to infringe upon migrant workers' rights.

(China Daily 09/20/2005 page4)

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