A landmark State Council decree is expected to help rural migrant workers substantially, an official said yesterday.
The decree on "doing a good job in the management of and service for rural migrant workers" was issued last week and is now being implemented nationwide.
For years, rural migrant workers have been limited to taking jobs in big cities that local residents reject as dirty or dangerous, such as on construction sites, said Yuan Chongfa, deputy director of the China Center for Town Reform and Development.
Many migrant workers are not paid in full, if at all, for months of work, partly because they failed to sign labor contracts beforehand or because their bosses refused to pay them using various excuses, Yuan said.
This scenario is expected to change substantially with the implementation of the decree, he said.
The State Council document says all trades and types of work should be open to laborers of urban and rural origin without discrimination.
Employers must sign contracts with rural migrant workers and these contracts should specify the type of work, conditions and payment. When a firm goes bankrupt, the migrant workers should be paid before other debts are cleared.
The decree also encourages urban State schools to open their doors to the children of migrant farmers.
In the past, rural migrant workers had to pay extra fees to enroll their children in urban schools or else send the children to schools run by unqualified staff or simply not send the youngsters to school at all.
Xiao Xuehui - a professor with the Southwest Nationalities Institute in Chengdu in Sichuan Province, one of the largest sources of rural migrant workers - said it is the government's responsibility to serve the rural migrant workers, who are taxpayers.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Security yesterday announced that a one-month special campaign launched on December 15 had so far helped 626,000 rural migrant workers in 23 provinces and municipalities get back 350 million yuan (US$42 million) in payments owned, Xinhua News Agency reported last night.
But, in the long run, the rights and interests of rural migrant workers will be safeguarded by legislation rather than one or two campaigns, Xiao said.
The government should fully understand the significance of the huge flow of migrant workers from rural areas into cities and design better policies to deal with urbanization, the basis of modernization, said Chinese sociologists.
It is an inevitable trend of this process that surplus rural laborers will move to the cities, said Hong Dayong, associate professor with the Department of Social Studies of the Renmin University of China.
He said a population shift would help ease the pressure on the nation's limited cultivatable land and other agricultural resources and much aid rural ecological protection.
Hong was echoed by Li Qiang, professor with Tsinghua University who specializes in social stratification.
Urbanization is a major way to fill the development gap between China's cities and countryside, said Li.
But he said the process could not develop rapidly, as great financial support is needed to create and support the infrastructure and public services of cities, such as the transport and housing.
Rural workers began gravitating to the cities in the late 1980s in search of jobs. Currently some 90 million of them are working in cities across the country.
The flow of migrant workers in China has double-edged significance for its urbanization process, bringing great changes to both the rural and urban areas, said Hong.
The income of migrant workers has become a major source of finance for their families who remain in the countryside, particularly given the inefficiency of the nation's agricultural industry.
These workers have not only added to the coffers of their home regions, they have enlarged their vision, introduced new ideas, improved working skills and perhaps more importantly, taken back a new and vibrant view of life, which may help to promote the development of rural areas, he added.
Hong defined urbanization as a process in which the population and scale of cities increases, and urban characteristics become incorporated into the life of rural areas.
"It is not only a process of population movement, but also the promotion of an urban culture and lifestyle to rural areas," said Hong.
He said the process also has great bearing on the life of urban residents and their cities.
Rural labor has meant a greater level of conveniences in the daily lives of those living in the cities, as they do many of the menial jobs which urban residents are reluctant to undertake.
Furthermore, the low labor costs of migrant workers has contributed considerably to the economic growth of the cities.
"Contact between urban and rural people, impeded in the past by the residential registration system, is increasing along with the level of mutual understanding, although bigotry still lingers among some people," said Hong.
The process, however, has given rise to serious problems, which require better designed government policies to deal with both the inflow and outflow of migrant workers, he added.
Most of the migrant workers have little awareness when it comes to observing laws and regulations and tend to act on instinct which causes great problems for public security, said Hong, adding that it takes time for migrant workers to readjust themselves and realize the importance of law and public ethics.
He said governments should shift their attitude of restraint and rejection of migrant workers and instead focus on gainfully using their services.
"The sense of feeling that they belong nowhere is not socially healthy and will do little to curb criminal tendencies," Hong continued.
Governments need to provide migrant workers with more information on how to find a job and protect their interests and rights in a strange city, he said. "The management system should be an open and dynamic one," Hong noted.
He also contended that communities also have an important role to play in helping their countrymen, from the rural areas, better adapt to an urban environment.
(China Daily January 23, 2003)