What do two hours mean in the life of a Chinese construction worker? They can earn 20 yuan (2.6 US dollars) laboring, or they can attend a 120-minute lecture which could just save their life.
It certainly changed the mind of 28-year-old Chen Wei, a laborer. "I came to know that AIDS was not a disease exclusively belonging to sexually active westerners," admits the strong-built and dark-skinned Chen, a steel bar worker on a big construction site in Changsha, capital of central China's Hunan Province.
Chen is one of the 30,667 beneficiaries of a pilot program started in 2007 by the Chinese Ministry of Construction (MOC) which aims to teach migrant construction workers about HIV/AIDS.
It is a shabby single-story house surrounded by a commercial complex called Shanghe (upper river) International, which is currently being built. With its 70 sets of desks and chairs, the 100-square-meter room is a part-time training school for workers on the construction site.
In mid-October 2007, Chen Wei and his fellow workers were asked by their supervisor to attend a two-hour lecture in the evening given by teachers from Changsha Station of Construction Engineering Security Supervision(CSCESS) on the prevention and control of AIDS.
Chen, who comes from central Hunan's Xinhua County and had worked on more than 20 construction sites nationwide, thought it was an interesting topic, but one which he thought had nothing to do with him.
"I was previously told by others that AIDS was more disastrous than cancer. But I didn't relate it with us Chinese," says Chen.
But Chen found he was wrong after teacher Zhou Yiran briefed the 60 trainees on the development of AIDS nationally and in Hunan Province. By the end of November 2007, the underdeveloped province has reported 4,974 cases of HIV infection and AIDS, ranking it eighth in terms of occurrence nationwide. The estimated figure of cases is five to six times larger.
More alarming for the young man was the fact that HIV/AIDS is now appearing among the general public in China. Hence why migrant workers are listed as one of the focus groups in the national AIDS-prevention blueprint.
In the case of Shanghe International, the majority of the 300-plus workers have no family to accompany them, and Chen knows that some of the workers go with street prostitutes or with girls from beauty parlors. It is estimated that Changsha is home to over20,000 karaoke bars, beauty salons, massage parlors and other "recreational" spots.
"My friends are not used to using condoms, simply because wearing them is very uncomfortable," smiles Chen Wei.
At class, Chen also learnt new concepts such as how AIDS can be passed on from mother to new-born baby. He also learnt that HIV cannot be passed to human beings by mosquitoes. "The content of our lessons is compact but useful," echoes Chen's fellow worker LiDe.
In just two weeks, nine teachers from CSCESS and Hunan Construct Polytechnic (HCP) gave 87 lectures to over 5,000 construction workers on 38 construction sites in Changsha and the adjacent cities of Zhuzhou and Xiangtan.
Trainers believe the lectures have achieved satisfactory results. The rate of correct responses to a nine-question test was raised from less than 60 per cent before the training to 83.8 percent after, according to HCP figures.
What Chen learnt impelled him to change his lifestyle. He vowed never again to go to unofficial health care clinics. "No matter how cheap their service is, I will never visit underground clinics in the future for injection or other treatment: it's dangerous, isn't it?"
Chen, who had attended a senior high school, was also chosen by the station to assist the lectures throughout the process. One of his responsibilities was informing those who did not attend lectures about AIDS prevention.
He also reminds his friends who go out for fun to take condoms." Of course, I won't force them to use condoms because all of us are adults, but a friendly suggestion can be effective."
This year, Chen is going to marry his fiancee, who works as a waitress at a hotel in Changsha. "We'll live a happy life, as I know how to live a decent life," he laughs.
However, besides Chen are a lot more workers who need educating about HIV/AIDS just as much as he did.
Statistics from the National Bureau of Statistics indicate that there are about 200 million migrant workers throughout China, who move from the countryside into cities to seek jobs and other opportunities. Construction workers make up one fourth of all the migrant workers, according to Vice Minister of Construction Huang Wei.
Jing Jun, an academic studying AIDS policy at Beijing's Qinghua University, says migrant workers are susceptible to HIV/AIDS because of their constant mobility, loneliness and lack of knowledge.
As early as 2005, MOC kicked off a campaign of publicizing AIDS prevention in the construction sector, but the substantial work did not get started until May 2007, when it signed a contract of cooperation with the State Council AIDS Working Committee Office.
Initially, MOC used funding applied through China AIDS Roadmap Tactical Support Project (CHARTS) under the State Council office and trained 1,000 officials and 113 teachers in the construction sector, who gave further training to migrant workers in six targeted provinces and five cities, including Hunan.
Chen Xiaoying, a teacher from HCP, was among the first batch of "seed teachers". With an educational background of psychology, Chen combined what she learned through CHARTS training with vivid PowerPoint Presentations (PPTs), cases and multimedia.
"Lecturing to the migrant workers requires an easy-going method," Chen says. She remembered that she focused on "opportunist infection" at the first lecture, but the audience looked lost at sea and indifferent. "What they care about is how the disease is transmitted, so I spontaneously made changes."
Zhou Yiran agreed that simple language was appropriate for the workers. For instance, the wording of "security is guaranteed by helmets, and health is secured by condoms" has become a well-received idiom for Chen Wei and his fellow workers.
Chen Xi, an expert on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) from Hunan Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention, applauds the AIDS-prevention training at the part-time schools on the construction sites. "It is a meaningful test of merging disease prevention and safe work," he says.
Liu Jinglin, project manager of a local construction project named Xizi Huayuan (Xishi Garden), believes the public health training invigorates the workers. "You know, it's hard to organize the workers in view of their different backgrounds and regions, but the canteen was packed with workers whenever there was a lecture. Even the workers' wives and children showed up."
Not all the enterprises were cooperative. Some of them refused the AIDS-prevention training on the excuse that it would hold back the pace of construction.
More complicated is the geo-economical factors Hunan faces, warns Prof. Chen. A transport hub in the heart of China, Hunan links economically-developed coastal provinces and southwest China's Yunnan Province, which tops the list for AIDS victims in China.
There are about 12 million migrant workers nationwide whose home province is Hunan. A noticeable trend over the years is that some migrant workers return because they are not covered by the local medical insurance where they work, Chen says.
In spite of all the difficulties, MOC is determined to expand the scope of experiment. "We hope to cover every construction site on the basis of part-time schools," says Sun Meiyan, deputy director of the Center of Human Resources Development of MOC (MOCHR), which is in charge of AIDS-prevention training for migrant construction workers.
Starting from early 2007, the ministry launched the construction of part-time schools for migrant construction workers, and there are now more than 10,000 such schools scattered throughout China covering three million workers.
Sun also calls for a closer inter-ministerial cooperation. She says MOC might be able to make more contributions to Sunshine Project under the guidance of Ministry of Agriculture (MOA), which aims at building up the vocational capacity of farmers before they go into cities. In the past three years, 11 million farmers have received training under the huge project.
The instillation of AIDS-prevention knowledge in the Sunshine Project could bring down the occurrence of HIV among the construction workers, says Sun. "After all, AIDS prevention is a job that needs the common participation of all the related governments."
(Xinhua News Agency February 21, 2008)