Outcasts no longer

By Lin Meilian in Guangdong Source:Global Times Published: 2012-7-5 21:45:04

A migrant worker unwinds outside her dorm away from home near her factory in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. Photo: CFP
A migrant worker unwinds outside her dorm away from home near her factory in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. Photo: CFP

The "Happy Guangdong" slogan is no guarantee of happiness. The southern province, one of China's major costal manufacturing zones, has recently seen dangerous riots in which migrant workers clashed with police and local residents.

The slogan seems particularly ironic in the case of Ai, 23, a migrant worker from Longshan, Sichuan Province, who now lives in Shaxi, a clothing factory town near Zhongshan just across the water from Hong Kong. The town has seen instances of violence since June 25 after a teenager from a migrant worker family was beaten by police.

Lonely cockroaches

Ai's motorbike was stolen from her home when her family went to the scene of the riots and left the door open. A week later, her family moved into a cheaper residence with sickly green weeds covering the walls and with the kitchen prey to an infestation of cockroaches. The only advantage is that the rent is only about 300 yuan ($47), or one-fourth of her current salary.

After living in the city for over a decade, Ai still feels like an outsider. She cannot speak Cantonese and most of her friends and neighbors are from Sichuan. She does not mingle with locals, either at work or outside.

Comparing their presence to that of the insects, she states "but you know what, Cantonese people are right about cockroaches. They can fly, they can swim, they are hard to kill." Although she has never felt at home here, she has become used to it, just like she has grown used to living in a damp flat filled with cockroaches.
"It doesn't matter if we know how to get along with local people, we will go back to Sichuan eventually," she said.

More than one-third of Guangdong's population of over 110 million is made up of migrant workers. However, studies have shown that they have little sense of community or group identity in their new home, according to a survey released by the local government in April. 

Only 17.2 percent of migrants said they feel they belong in Guangdong. About 80 percent claim to have been treated unfairly and although the average monthly salary is now up to 2,280 yuan, 74.5 percent still face financial problems.

Experts claim that the younger generation of migrant workers, mainly born in the 1980s and 1990s, have different concerns than those of their parents. While older migrants are mostly concerned about income levels, younger ones have different demands.

"They can't tolerate being treated unfairly, they will stand up, protest and fight back," Liu Kaiming, a labor researcher and executive director of the Shenzhen Institute of Contemporary Observation, told the Global Times. "It seems that this anger has been boiling over in recent years."

Lighting a spark

Like Ai, many villagers from Longshan were outraged when they heard a teenager from Chongqing was beaten by security forces after a fight between him and a local student. Chongqing used to be part of Sichuan Province.

Some 300 angry migrant workers gathered outside the offices of the local authority, smashed cars and threw rocks at police. The anger was fuelled when rumors spread that the boy had been beaten to death. At least 20 people were arrested and dozens were injured but there were no fatalities, according to the police.

Police arrested a young man from Sichuan two days after the riot for spreading rumors of the death.

The impulse behind this riot was similar to one in the Guangzhou suburb of Zengcheng last year, when security guards pushed a pregnant street vendor from Sichuan to the ground and rumors spread that she and her husband had been killed. Other riots erupted in nearby Chaozhou after Sichuan migrant workers complained that a ceramics factory had delayed their wages.

This dark series of riots has brought screaming home the full measure of the anger of migrant workers in Guangdong. This rage is believed to be the result of a raft of social issues, including the hukou, the household registration system that sees migrant workers leave social benefits behind when they move to the city. Their plight has been described as them being like illegal immigrants in their own country. 

Liu said the province, home to over 26 million migrant workers, has become a center of social exclusion.

"Happy Guangdong is just a slogan. From the household registration system to regulations, from the local government to ordinary people, everything sends migrant workers a clear message: you don't belong here," he continued.

Clash of emotions

Over more than three decades, migrant workers have been part of Guangdong's development and reform. The coastal province is home to a large population of migrant factory workers drawn from across China who contribute near 25 percent of the province's GDP.

"However, migrant workers can't really benefit from the cities they help to build," said Liu.

Liu added that for the last 20 years, one-third of labor dispute cases and half of all labor strikes in China have taken place in Guangdong.

The government has taken a number of steps including setting up a federation of labor organizations in the province to more effectively tackle the problems.

Some of their methods seem slightly trite, such as handing out 200,000 copies of Chicken Soup for the Soul to the workers free of charge.

The provincial government plans to scrap the title of "migrant worker" to curb discrimination and promote the integration of workers into society. But some argue that changing the name is unlikely to end discrimination.

Others may help more such as restrictions on residency being slightly relaxed of late.

In June 2011, the provincial government unveiled a point system for millions of migrant workers and their spouses in the province who want to register their households.

The points are awarded based on the workers' educational background, professional skills, social security records and participation in charity activities.

There are about 290,000 migrant workers who have gained the hukou during 2010 and 2011, according to provincial department of human resources and social security.

Ge Guoxing, deputy director of the department, said the local government would sponsor 10,000 migrant workers of the new generation to receive higher education this year.

Guangdong is planning to spend over 1.2 billion yuan to promote living standards for migrant workers and provide free services for employment, said Ge.

The provincial government said it would grant residency to 1.8 million migrants a year. However, critics said the authorities are only selecting the most eligible candidates, usually those with well-paid jobs and property or investments in the city.

"It depends on the local government's attitude," He Xiaobo, founder of Hexiaobo Office, a Guangdong-based NGO that promotes the rights of migrant workers, told the Global Times.

He said many migrant workers have no problem making a living in the province, but demand more respect. "Whenever the government launches a crackdown on disorder or littering, it mainly targets migrant workers."

Liu said jobs and houses are more important for migrant workers than hukou. He suggests the local government should build more low-rent houses to help those looking to settle down.

"As many of their families are left behind, if the whole family could live together in the cities, it would help reduce instances of crime and rioting."

People in limbo

Behind the series of riots is the growing new generation of migrant workers who feel lost in the cities. They are stuck since they also have no desire to return to the countryside, given a lack of farming experience.

Huang Xianming, a Sichuanese taxi driver in Zhongshan, is worried. She is glued to the radio to make sure she does not miss anything.

"They have gone too far," she told the Global Times. "Kids fight all the time. It is not a big deal. They probably regret doing that (rioting) now," referring to the incident in Zhongshan.

However, she understands the cause of public anger because "even a rabbit will bite if it gets angry."

After the police managed to calm the situation, angry migrant workers moved to the Internet to post pictures of the riots but met with some resistance from locals again.

"We have treated Sichuanese people well and donated a lot of money when the earthquake hit Sichuan, now you see how they treat us in return?" a Cantonese Internet user said.

Lin Huachong, a local resident who was beaten up during the riots, said he has no idea why Sichuan migrants targeted him. "I was on the way to my sister's place, they stopped me, pulled me off my bike and beat me. I have no problem with them, how could they do that to me?"

Huang said it upsets her to read such comments. "On the surface, we get along with each other, but I know deep inside, they think we come here to take their jobs and money," she said.

The key to building a happy Guangdong is to build trust and increase understanding, He, the migrant worker's NGO founder, suggests.

However, he pointed out migrant workers do not have to fit in with the Cantonese culture as this may well mean abandoning their own.


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