Discrimination against farmer-turned migrant workers still exists in China, but they are receiving more care and gaining more rights while the country is seeking a harmonious atmosphere for development.
Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers stayed in cities during the Spring Festival holiday week. Taking Chinese cities like Shanghai and cities in Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces, they received from local trade unions subsidies and festival gifts before the Chinese lunar New Year.
This was part of a special charity program targeted at migrant workers launched by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) in early January, which allocated 5 million yuan (about US$625,000) for subsidies and gifts for the population.
It was the first time that the charity of the trade unions was extended to migrant workers since the program was initiated 10 years ago.
The charity used to cover only needy workers who have urban hukou, or residence certificates, said Zhang Liqun, an official with the municipal trade union of Shanghai.
"To cover migrant workers under the charity umbrella, I think, is one of the country's recent endeavors to give them formal workers' treatment," Zhang said.
It was estimated that China has about 200 million farmer-turned migrant workers. For a long time since rural migrants flowed into cities, the population worked without the privileges their city peers enjoyed, such as medical and work safety insurance.
They had also suffered unfavorable working conditions and low pay, which were usually defaulted.
Unequal treatment and discrimination from urban residents against this unprivileged population became one major concern in the country, which not only disgruntled migrant workers themselves but also aroused attention from the country's policy makers.
Acknowledging that migrant workers have become a major component of the country's army of industrial workers, China's central authorities noted last October that the country will establish gradually a unitive labor market that incorporates both urban and rural labor forces to ensure a fair and equal employment mechanism.
A guideline on the solution to the problems of migrant workers released by the State Council in mid January said that migrant workers made great contribution to the development of the country.
"This is the most favorable comment on our migrant workers I have ever heard," said Xu Hanxiang, a 42-year-old migrant worker who worked in Shanghai for eight years.
The guideline also urged enterprises and local governments to take substantial measures to cover migrant workers under social security umbrella and public service system.
In addition to an emphasis on the improvement of their payment, the guideline pointed out that migrant workers' political rights must be respected.
"The policy of the central government, however, is only a good start. The accomplishment depends on local governments' determination and efforts," said Pu Xingzu, a political researcher at Fudan University in Shanghai.
The researcher said that in the country's comparatively developed eastern areas, local governments are taking measures to improve the treatment of migrant workers.
Xu Hanxiang and another migrant worker attended an annual session of the 12th Municipal People's Congress of Shanghai, or the local legislature, as representatives of the 3.75 million rural migrant workers in Shanghai in January.
Pu said that the two migrant workers made history in Shanghai when they were seated at the local legislature's session. "This was a recognition of the migrant workers' status, though not yet in a formal document," the researcher said.
In Shanghai, more than two million migrant workers are now covered by a special social security program, which targeted at migrant population.
In Wuxi, a city in eastern Jiangsu Province, more than 90 percent of children of migrant workers enter local schools without extra fees.
The residence registration system, or hukou, is regarded as a final barrier that prevent migrant workers enjoying equal rights and welfares with their city peers.
"Admit it or not, migrant workers have become an indispensable part of the country's industrial labor force, and it is an irresistible trend to let them enjoy the same rights and treatments as their city peers," said Lu Xiaowen, an expert with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
Currently, more than 10 provinces are implementing a pilot program of the reform of the residence registration system. The reform, observers say, would better status of farmer-turned migrant workers in cities.
(Xinhua News Agency February 3, 2006)