"Mingong" or migrant workers may perform vital tasks, but that doesn’t make them more popular. Dressed often in ragged or dirty clothes, carrying huge bags and speaking in distant dialec they suffer rather than are welcomed in the capital.
"Beijingers think we pollute their air and that our baggage takes their space, even though we’ve bought tickets for the bus, just like them," says Guo Tao, a worker from the countryside who had high hope when he came to the big city. “They always look at us scornfully, but our work is also great. Without us, they couldn’t live in their new houses.
Guo Tao, 20, has been working on a construction site for one year.
Three years ago, after having graduated from junior middle school in Gu’an county, Hebei Province, Guo Tao came to Beijing. He did a variety of jobs but eventually had to settle for life as a builder. “My father is a builder. I don’t have much education, and few chances to find other jobs. But being a builder is at least a straightforward job. And because I am the smallest one, they treat me well.” Guo Tao is working as a “shuigong”; he is in charge of waterpower for a local construction company.
“I know one of the leaders in the company, so I got the chance to be a water worker. The job is not too tiring compared with what other workers do, but it isn’t that well paid. I get about 500 yuan per month.It's probably better off than the most basic laborers. Lacking any skills, they do the most physical work like digging ad moving bricks. They get around 20 yuan for a day’s work. Tilers and men who work with concrete get about 30 yuan per day. The signaler is the only worker who is required to have a national license, and gets about 600 uan per month.
The leader of one group, usually of about 10 workers, is called a Zuzhang. They don’t get any more money but can delegate tasks. The section chief (Gongzhang) does not work. He gets about 1,000 yuan a month for supervising and reporting to the boss.
Living in the buildings on his construction site, over 1000 workers used to sleep in one basement. That was before SARS, after which such large crowds in one space became too dangerous. Now 14 builders share one dormitory according to the regulations. Taps for washing are out in the yard. And of course, only the bosses have air conditioning in their dormitory.
Though standards vary at different building sites, food usually isn’t provided free of chanrge. The builders Guo works paying 5 yuan per day for their food, even though they only get the cheapest stuff, usually vegetables. Bosses occasionally buy builders some meat, in order to encourage them to work hard. After getting their money, the builders often go to a restaurant for a proper feed.
“I have to do that,” says Guo, “in order to settle a month’s worth of hunger in one supper.The workers get up at 4:30 am. The work time is about 13 hours, but if the project is running behind, overtime is a must. Only in the heaviest rains will work be suspended. The workers put up with this, knowing that if the boss is penalized for any delays, the workers will be the scapegoats in the end.
Tower building is very dangerous, and accidents often happen. But workers usually have no insurance and must rely on their company’s “generosity” to cover medical bill Guo Tao says he has been lucky and has yet to suffer an accident. But once, when he was working in Tongzhou, a suburb of Beijing, he saw one man fall from a building and injure his leg.
“The boss brought him to hospital and paid the fees. But the man did not get any time to rest. For each day he didn’t work, he got no money.” That worker was relatively lucky. Other injured workers have been left without a cent to cover their medical costs.Trust is a key part of construction employment so people often agree to work for someone from their hometown. As most construction firms are privately owned, the guarantees for both sides are less binding.
Often there is no written contract, just bosses are worried that they will be left in a hole if their workers strike, so they only pay them on completion of the job. But for workers, this poses the problem that bosses frequently refuse to pay them after they’ve finished. Both sides, the workers in particular, feel safer working with people from their part of the country. Fights often break out over disputes, but usually among the workers. They regard this as the only way to settle a dispute, having little or no recourse to the law. Reprisals against bosses who have refused to pay up are rare.
It is unjust
“Everyone knowsthat Beijingers dislike us. They always complain about how dirty we are. But how are you supposed to stay clean on a building site. Beijingers should try working there themselves,” Guo says angrily.
There is a bridge in front of Guo’s building site. In their spare time, builders will wash and change into clean clothes. Standing on the bridge, no-one notices them or looks at them, just because they don’t look like mingong.Most builders are young. Generally they leave for big cites seeking work after finishing primary school. Those with high school diplomas are considered well educated.
Like a lot of the other workers, Guo Tao wanted to get out of his village, see the outer world and broaden his mind. But there’s little time for that if you’re working 13 to 14 hours everyday. There are no newspapers, radios or TV sets provided on building sites.
Guo Tao doesn’t smoke. “I like to go out and see people in the street or find a lively restaurant. I look at the different people and wonder what difference there is between us. “We have the same ideals in our childhood as people in Beijing, but we are not able to choose how to live.” Guo feels he is just a passenger in the city, staying for a few years, even though he has helped in building it. “We have no money or education so Beijing can’t be our home.
(China Daily Sep 9, 2003)