Migrant workers said they feel sad for a couple in Foshan, Guangdong province, who were detained on Monday for booking train tickets online and selling them to migrants desperate to return home for Spring Festival by charging just 10 yuan extra. They believe the couple have been wronged by being branded "scalpers", because they were actually helping migrant workers get the elusive train ticket.
The couple indeed have to be punished according to law. But then the authorities should take measures to ensure migrant workers get train tickets without all the hassles and tensions.
Migrant workers, who comprise the majority of the passengers and suffer the most during Spring Festival, find it even harder to book a train ticket after the Ministry of Railways launched the online ticketing service last year.
The online ticketing service was expected to help passengers to book tickets more conveniently and faster. But ironically this so-called people-friendly measure did not factor in the group that needs train tickets the most during Spring Festival.
Trains have always been migrant workers' first choice to return home during Spring Festival because train tickets are comparatively cheap. But a majority of migrant workers cannot buy tickets online because they do not have computers or cannot access the Internet. Even if migrant workers can access the Internet, a large number of them are not tech-savvy enough to book a train ticket online without help.
Moreover, the online ticketing system requires passengers to pay for tickets online, but very few migrant workers, especially the elderly, know anything about e-banking and are reluctant to purchase tickets online for fear of being cheated.
Students of the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade conducted a survey among migrant workers last September. More than 90 percent of the respondents preferred taking a train back home and almost 80 percent of them said they would do so by buying tickets from a ticket office. Also, 70 percent of them said they were not familiar with the online ticketing procedure and only 18 percent had tried using the online ticketing service. The sample size of the survey might not have been big enough, but it reflected migrant workers' attitude toward the online ticketing service and the difficulties they face.
The priority accorded to online ticketing by the Ministry of Railways has exacerbated migrant workers' difficulty in buying train tickets. Sale of tickets for a given date opens two days before they can be purchased from a ticket counter. Compared with people with easy access to the Internet, migrant workers, who are most sensitive to price and most eager to get a train ticket but face the greatest difficulty in booking one, thus lose out at the starting line to buy a ticket.
Although the Ministry of Railways claims only a small percentage of train tickets are sold online, official statistics show that 40 percent of the tickets sold on Jan 4 were through the Internet, many of which were to popular destinations.
Many journalists have interviewed migrant workers and booking clerks and both groups have said it is even more troublesome to purchase train tickets from counters during peak transport seasons now. It's true that fewer people queue up in front of ticket counters nowadays but those who need tickets the most (migrant workers) find it more difficult to book a ticket.
Huang Qinghong, a migrant worker from Chongqing who worked in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, wrote a letter to the Ministry of Railways last year complaining about how the online ticketing system has made booking a ticket more difficult. His letter sparked a heated public debate but nothing seems to have changed for migrant workers in the intervening one year.
Though the railway authorities offer group ticket purchasing service for migrant workers in many areas, the procedure is complicated because ticket buyers have to furnish documents such as letters from labor unions or their employers. It is practically impossible for the large number of migrant workers who work for small companies or are self-employed to get such documents.
In 1999, the US national telecommunications and information administration used a term, "information divide", to describe the gap between people with and without access to information technology, saying it could further widen the wealth gap between them. The online ticketing service is one example of that trend spreading in China. The trend of scientific and technological progress may be irreversible, but there's no reason for us to make life more difficult for the disadvantaged groups.
When it comes to social policy, fair play and justice should be the top priority. But the online ticket service can hardly be described as fair play, especially because a lot of people in China haven't touched a computer keyboard in their life.
Some media reports have highlighted many voluntary activities started by local communities, NGOs and volunteers to provide migrant workers network training and guide them to book tickets online. But along with such genuine public services, the authorities should consider issuing train tickets online and from counters simultaneously during peak traveling seasons such as Spring Festival to help migrant workers. After all, disadvantaged groups such as migrant workers deserve to share the benefits of the nation's economic success.
The author is a writer with China Daily. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.