Saturday, May 21, 2011

China's Mingong: Plight of China's Migrant Workers

They say you can spot a Mingong a mile away. Dirty, disheveled from the day's exertion, careblown and exhausted with a plaintive look.

The Mingong, or as is better known in the west as China's vast army of migrant workers is the faceless fuel of the most rapidly growing economy in the world.

Unheralded and unloved by his fellow citizens he works long hours for low pay, if, he gets any at all. He toils generally in the most dirtiest, the most dangerous and the most unwanted of occupations far away from his home town, families and friends. He lives, most times, in crowded, unsanitary conditions, living on meagre provisions and dreaming of his once a year spring soujourn to his home town , a  home coming described by some as one of the great movements of people in the world.

But the Mingong is the backbone of China's meteoric economic rise, so, why then does the world and his own country treat him with such disdain? As if his human rights, his dreams and his aspirations are meaningless. Why is he so visibly invisible?

Who then is this Mingong? This "Migrant" in his own land?

Estimates are that there are 150 million Migrant Workers in China. The number is expected to reach in excess of 200 million by 2012 and pass 300 million by 2025. They are citizens of China but have moved typically from rural areas such as Sichuan, Hunan, Henan, Anhui and Jiangxi Provinces where employment opportunities are drying up to the cities and regions of stupendous economic growth in the east.

Typically they move for economic reasons: greater emploment opportunities, higher pay, but some, though not many, for the excitement of seeing the bright lights of a more vibrant China.

Like most migrants in history they tend to gravitate to employment that is unwanted by the locals.  Usually dirty work, low paid and dangerous. Jobs in coal mining, construction and lower level service industries such as China's expanding food industry.

In these occupations they are looked down upon and derided by locals. They are "The peasants who want to be workers"

Why Is Their Plight a Human Rights Issue?

Yes the migrant worker chooses to leave his home, he voluntarily goes to seek greater rewards to send home to provide for his family.

That in itself is good, it is aspirational, it is what most people all over the world do, strive to better themselves. It is, however, how he is treated by employees and the Government and the results of this treatment that makes it a Human Rights Issue,

Worker/ Employee Relations

The Mingong is looked down upon and they are treated as nothing better, in a lot of instances, then an expendable resource. They are contracted at low rates of pay which generally includes sub-standard, crowded and unsanitary accommodation and food, which their employees deduct from their pay sometimes at outrageous cost. Having little protection by unions or government they can sometimes go unpaid for months, if they get paid at all.

They have none or little access to pension and health insurance. According to a study by Feng, Zuo and Ruan (2002) only 14 per cent had health insurance and 10 per cent had pension plans.

Due to their status and occupation work safety is a major issue. They lack basic and proper Occupational Health and Safety protection. In 2005, for example, there were 100,000 occupational related deaths in China and obviosly countless work related injuries and illnesses. The Mingong, the Chinese Migrant worker, would appear very noticebaly in these statistics if they have even been quantified.

Worker/ State Relations

Unfortunately wherever there is money there is motive for greed and avarice. This is universal. However, we in the west are protected from the excesses of this human nature flaw by strong Political governance and the support of the likes of Unions and pressure groups. This is not so in China. In China the system is the Minjongs greatest enemy.

This stems from a government policy known as the The Hukou System  (the government household registration system)

     "The Hukou system was established in the 1950s. It registers every person at a specific place (usually their place of birth), and requires all changes in residence to be registered with and
approved by both the government of the place of origin and that of the destination.

This policy became even more restrictive when the Chinese government introduced the food stamp system, and provided low-priced rationing of foods to each individual residing in his or her place of residence.

There were two main consequences resulting from implementing these policies. First, it became almost impossible for an individual to move from one place of residence to another. Second, the division between rural farmers and urban city dwellers became wider, with rural farmers lagging behind in economic and social resources."  (Zhao, YH, 2000)

In China, social welfare benefits are  tied a persons residence status within the Hukou system. Therefore, migrant workers are largely excluded from social security and medical benefits in the urban cities because they are not official residents of those cities.

They also have restrictions placed on their ability to get independent living arrangements, housing and rental subsidies and child health and education, thus, family re-unions are nigh impossible.

The Hukou system and it's inherint weaknesses and discrimiation is well known to the Chinese government but, for whatever reason, they choose to ignore it, always saying that reviews are ongoing. Why? This is hard to explain as the Mingong is vital and indispensable to China's economic growth.

There is no doubt in my mind that the  Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is fearful as to the ramifications of changes to the Hukou System. At the moment they have control to a great degree over population movements.

"Yes feel free to come to Shanghai to work on some project but when it is finished see you later, go back from whence you came. And, while your at it, leave your family at home. It is easier for us that way"


The plight of the Mingong is a real time Human Rights tragedy that is grossly ignored, particularly by so called Human Rights Activists in the west, not to mention obviously the Chinese government. The effects of their treatment cover all areas of human decency and individual and social stability and have unimaginable and unquantifiable repercussions.

Families are rent, children are denied proper parenting. The loneliness of the Mijong must be be palatable, insufferable. What effect on crime, mental and physical health?

These people are the front line soldiers of China's Economic "miracle" but what soldiers that have been to war for their country are so badly treated in-service and upon completion of their "tour of duty"

Let us get over the "One Child Policy", the constant over exposure of censorship issues. This is not an intellectual rights issue of who can say what and when, but real human suffering and misery.

When next you use your iPAD think about it.

Further reading suggested:

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