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A policy recommendation by a government department in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province, has triggered a new round of debate about migrant workers.

Guangzhou's construction committee is reported to be drafting a policy limiting the influx of a "low-quality" population. Their key reason was that migrant workers accounted for a big proportion of the city's troublemakers 80 per cent of criminal suspects and 70 per cent of unlicensed street vendors were reported to be people who had migrated to the city.

These figures might be true. But they do not justify higher barriers for migrants coming to live and work in the city.

In fact, almost all the migrant workers are from rural areas across the country. There has always been a barrier between the urban and rural worlds in China. The barrier is the residence permit system, known in Chinese as hukou.

An urban hukou is linked to all kinds of welfare that a rural hukou holder does not have access to. People from the countryside do not have pensions, they are not covered by the social security net of the cities. Even their children have difficulty going to primary and high schools in the cities.

Despite that, a big labour surplus and a considerably large urban-rural wealth gap have resulted in steady population movement from the countryside to the cities.

Looking ahead, facilitating the rural population's movement to the cities will continue to be a major solution to the problem of labour redundancy in the countryside.

Migrant workers have actually brought great benefits to the cities, especially those in coastal areas.

Nobody can deny that the prosperity of the Pearl River Delta can be attributed, to a large extent, to labour-intensive industries. These industries, in turn, owe much to migrant workers.

Migrant workers from rural areas will continue to be in demand because labour-intensive industries will remain significant for the economy. In addition, the rapidly growing service industries also mean job opportunities for migrant workers.

Society should make an effort to help these people and facilitate their assimilation into city life rather than installing new discriminatory barriers against them.

Those who raised the idea of setting up these barriers should be aware that poverty and lack of social welfare are often the key reasons these migrant workers commit crimes. Migrant workers not receiving their due payment remains a problem.

What is needed are steps to safeguard the rights of migrant workers and measures to gradually increase their social welfare levels.

At the moment it is unrealistic to give migrant workers equal access to the social security net of the cities. But steps should be taken to build a social security net in the countryside. The standards can be gradually raised and eventually unified with the system at work in the cities.

(China Daily December 19, 2006)

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