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Do Not Forget The Efforts of Migrant Workers

During a time of peace and prosperity, it is fitting to pay tribute to the 90 million or so migrant workers for their contributions to the nation's economic achievements over the past three decades.

These men and women from around the country, including some of the poorest and most remote regions, are the nameless heroes who have made real what was once nothing but a dream. They toil in factories, construction sites and underground mines from Guangdong to Heilongjiang to drive economic growth that is the envy of the world.

Their hard work has laid solid foundations for the second stage of economic development. Many mainland enterprises have gained the confidence to compete with well-established multinational conglomerates in the global marketplace.

The struggles of mainland enterprises trying to move up the value-added chain has relegated migrant workers to the shadows. More and more economists and young executives reportedly consider migrant workers an economic embarrassment and the labelling, mainly in the foreign press, of China as "factory of the world" an insult. But they are wrong.

Migrant workers are an invaluable asset that will continue to generate value in many different ways. The vast majority of them are engaged in manufacturing at the lowest rung of the value-added ladder. But the total economic value they produce goes far beyond the large export earnings that have enriched not only many State and privately-owned enterprises and numerous foreign investors, but also public coffers in the form of the large foreign exchange reserve.

The increase in export earnings has brought about a domestic boom in consumer spending on goods and services, private and public sector construction and investment in industrial plants and machinery. The resulting vast increase in domestic expenditure has become the main engine of China's rapid economic growth in recent years, while inflation has so far been kept in check by rising productivity in both the manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

To be sure, fast economic growth has generated problems. But decisive government action in terms of economic fine-tuning has cooled off the economy before the full impact of overheating began to take its toll.

Meanwhile, migrant workers are helping to address the problem of imbalanced growth between regions. It is common to find that remittances from migrant workers have fuelled the boom in many villages and townships in the relatively remote parts of the nation.

New and better roads are being built to link these villages and townships to the outside world. More shops are opening to cater to the needs of the increasingly affluent families living there. More multinational companies are beginning to move in to take advantage of the potential in these remote markets.

Despite their large contributions, both direct and indirect, to the nation's economy, migrant workers continue to hold a low social status in the large cities and regions where they work. These workers and their families are victims of various degrees of discrimination. In some cities they are denied equal access to medical facilities and other social services. There have also been reports of some schools refusing to admit the children of migrant workers, claiming, ostensibly, that they might slow down the learning progress of the other students.

Such outrageous treatment of migrant workers is utterly unacceptable to any fair-minded person. It is the responsibility of the government to protect the rights of migrant workers wherever they work.

Some analysts have suggested the establishment of a special government agency to safeguard the welfare of migrant workers as their ranks continue to swell. Such an agency should also be responsible for the setting up and management of a fund, derived from mandatory contributions from employers, to compensate migrant workers that are not paid by their employers.

A recent television report produced by CCTV chronicled the efforts of the Sichuan provincial government as it provided guidance, training and assistance to migrant workers hailing from that province. It is obvious that other than humanitarian reasons, the Sichuan government recognizes the economic benefits migrant workers are bringing to the poorer areas of the province. In so doing, it is setting a good example for the nation.

Migrant workers are an asset that must be protected for humanitarian as well as economic reasons.

(China Daily October 10, 2005)

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