Twenty-nine major cities along the Yangtze River held their biennial meeting for economic development co-ordination earlier this week.
The theme for this session was development of navigation channels and tourism along the river.
However, an agreement to build a unified system for the protection of migrant workers' rights seems to have a more profound significance.
Under the agreement, the cities will scrap many discriminatory requirements for migrant workers. They will also start to build social security systems to cover expenses from migrant workers' regular medical care and workplace injuries. Systems will also be built to help migrant workers deal with disputes over issues such as salary standards.
The agreement represented the first coordinated effort by a vast area of the country to conscientiously protect a key factor for their development human resources for the manufacturing and service industries.
It is a wise move because low pay and poor welfare for migrant workers have not only drawn increasing criticism based on moral considerations, but have also become an obstacle for some regions to get enough workers for their manufacturing businesses, as seen in the labor shortage in the coastal areas in recent years.
Chinese cities' demand for migrant workers will definitely increase with the rapid growth of manufacturing and service industries. Competition among regions for labor, especially for skilled and experienced workers, will certainly be unavoidable in the near future.
The decision-makers of the cities along the Yangtze are wise enough to see this and have taken action.
The move is likely to prompt similar steps by rival areas such as the Pearl River Delta and the Bohai Rim.
That will be a very desirable scenario.
However, such regional effort should not substitute effort from the central government, which should play the leading role in enacting laws promoting welfare and rights of migrant workers and in ensuring that the laws be effectively enforced.
It is also up to the central government to address some fundamental causes that put migrant workers at a disadvantageous position in the labor market - such as the residential permit system, known as hukou in Chinese.
The hukou system, which divides the society into two worlds (rural and urban), still prevent migrant workers from enjoying welfare available only to city dwellers and their assimilation with the urban population.
The policy-makers at the central level should work out a plan to refine the hukou system for the eventual unification of the rural and urban worlds.
(China Daily December 1, 2006)