During the process of China's urbanization, millions of rural residents have moved to urban areas and gradually have become a major work force in shaping our modern cities.
But a serious problem has long bothered these migrants: Their legal rights and interests are often violated.
They are treated poorly at work, their wages often are not paid on time, employers refuse to sign legal labor contracts with them, their children have to pay extra money to attend urban schools... the list goes on.
Sadly, while making up the backbone of China's labor construction force, many are constant victims of discrimination.
While there are certainly some farmer-turned-workers who have merged themselves quite well into urban life, most of them are still walking the perilous edge of poverty.
The long existing urban-rural separation system has also led to a psychological estrangement between city dwellers and rural laborers now working in cities. In the eyes of some city residents, migrant laborers are country bumpkins -- rude and vulgar. Yet for most rural laborers who earn their livings in cities, it is hard to feel any advancement or the "civilization" of the cities in which they reside.
But urbanization is a result of the country's reform and opening up progress, as well as an inevitable trend in its modernization process. More and more rural laborers and their families will settle down in urban areas and become an inseparable part of the urban scene.
Immediate efforts should be taken to reverse the unfair urban-rural system of separation and to protect migrant workers' rights and interests.
Wang Jingrong, vice-secretary of the political and legislation committee under the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, stressed that biased concepts against migrant workers should be altered.
Around 100 million rural laborers currently work in cities, mainly in construction, catering and manufacturing sectors. But many city dwellers still hold incorrect ideas that migrant laborers are a burden and negatively affect cities.
If such concepts cannot be changed, problems concerning migrant workers' rights will never be solved, let alone a long-term mechanism forged to protect their rights, Wang said.
He also suggested providing education to migrants, which will help them improve their knowledge and ability to protect their rights on their own.
Due to the high mobility of migrant workers, not providing benevolent legal education for them is a weak point in the implementation of China's legal popularization programs. From now on, priority should be given to migrant workers in legal education. Only when their legal consciousness and knowledge are enhanced can these migrant workers defend their own interests and rights with laws and regulations as their weapons.
Clearly, the current situation is that most migrant workers do not know how to bring a law suit or cannot afford to do so when their interests and rights are violated. That is why legal workers should take an active role in providing pro bono legal assistance to migrant laborers.
When commenting on migrant worker-related policy-making efforts, Qi Jingfa, vice-minister of agriculture, said it is a pressing task for government to solve the employment problems of these surplus laborers.
There are about 800 million rural residents in China, of which 150 million represent surplus labor.
The healthy development of a society needs a proper income-distribution mechanism and fair social order. Migrant workers are at the bottom of urban society and require more care and protection. That is the way to promote unity in different social strata.
The concerted development of rural and urban areas requires income increases for rural residents, the free flow of rural labor to non-agricultural industries and urban areas, and the industrialization and urbanization of rural regions. Institutional obstacles that lead to urban-rural separation should be eliminated. A unified labor system, residence registration system and compulsory education system should be developed, a matter closely related to the welfare of migrant workers.
And a "people first" concept should be adopted in policy making, Qi stressed.
For a long time, some local governments put economic growth as the major index of officials' performance evaluations while ignoring the unified development of society.
Migrant workers contribute to the minimizing of labor costs but their basic rights as laborers have been ignored. Such a policy model does not fit the current needs for a positive economic and social development strategy.
Guan Huai, a professor at Renmin University of China, holds that Labor Laws should be revised and improved in an effort to protect the rights and interests of migrant workers.
Loopholes in the laws and regulations should be mended and punishments of violators should be enhanced, Guan says.
In the construction industry, where most migrant workers are employed, companies usually do not sign labor contracts with migrants and payments often do not reach workers on time. In many cases, due payments have been delayed for months or even years. These are all violations of Labor Law.
On such payment defaults, the most eminent problem facing migrant workers, Bian Yaowu, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, has proposed a system to guarantee migrant workers receive their pay timely.
He said the system should reemphasize the legal rights of migrant workers and give detailed prescriptions for making due payments on time.
In its reply to Bian's proposal, the Ministry of Labor and Social Security stated that legislation to regulate the issue of payments, contract management and labor security supervision is being drafted. It also promised that supervision and law enforcement will be enhanced and cases concerning migrant laborers' rights and interests will be dealt with properly.
Migrant workers, major contributors to today's urban development, deserve nothing less. It is high time their nation gives them respect, recognition and equal treatment under the law.
(China Daily August 25, 2004)