02/24/2011, 00.00
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Migrant workers go through cruel and shameful exodus during lunar New Year

Each year tens of millions of workers face a difficult trip on overcrowded trains in order to get home for the New Year. A well-known journalist looks at the reasons for the event and slams the political factors that prevent migrant workers from having a better and more humane life.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Every year for the past 20 years, the same sorry scenes are repeated during the Lunar New Year travel crunch as tens of millions of Chinese migrants go home for a few days. Packed in trains, they travel long journeys, without basic amenities.

Many others do not even get to "enjoy" this privilege. They stand in line or hang about the train stations come rain or shine. In January 2008, when exceptional snowfalls blocked roads and rail transportation, millions of migrants had to wait for days without help or a chance to leave (see “Following snow disruptions, Guangzhou train station has backlog of 800,000 passengers,” in AsiaNews, 31 January 2008).

Chang Ping, a well-known social activist, in an article published in the South China Morning Post, noted that whilst “every year, the media goes on the hunt for that ‘human interest story’, our leaders profess their concern and life goes on. It's as if time has stood still.”

“For the country, of course, time has not stood still; China has seen a dramatic transformation in the past 20 years. Migrant workers have built cities of gleaming towers, and the subways and highways that link them; they are the cleaners and security guards who keep the cities clean and safe; they are the low-wage factory workers that churn out the ‘Made in China’ goods that have changed the world's economy. Generations of them—the workers and their children who become migrant workers themselves - have paid in sweat and tears, toiling for the country's development. Yet, each year, their journey home is still fraught with danger and difficulties.

“China is a country practised at mobilising considerable resources for ambitious goals, but it seems incapable of solving the migrants' travel problem. The only conceivable reason must be that no one cares enough to solve it. Perhaps, some may even delight in letting things be, for their own profit. The railway departments and operators, for one, seem glad to be making easy money—as the bloggers say, they collect money by letting people stand. For government bureaus and companies, sticking to one common holiday period for all workers, instead of staggering the holidays, must be a lot more convenient.

“The media, too, is not above making use of the workers' plight. While expressing sympathy for their difficulties, the media likes to use them as polish to burnish an "incontrovertible Chinese tradition". CCTV's annual spring festival gala, in particular, treats the "spring festival travel" almost like a religious rite. Commentators enthusiastically report the number of new world records created by the mass movement of people, and how they reflect the filial piety and familial love of the Chinese people, and how they show the prosperity and harmony of Chinese society. To me, they are disgraceful records that merely highlight the misery of our workers.

“It is well and good to respect traditions and mark the occasions when our community gathers in celebration. But, to take the suffering of so many people as material to make news reports more vivid is morally indefensible. As far as I know, many migrant workers who rush home for the Lunar New Year holiday do so not so much because of the significance of a new year reunion, but because there are no other holiday in the year that would allow them to reunite with the children and parents they left behind.

“If the migrants were given more opportunities to spend time with their family, or even live with their family as city dwellers do, they would surely reconsider the need to make that arduous journey in spring. I know some migrant workers who in fact chose not to go home for the New Year, because their children managed to visit them during the summer and winter break.

“We can put a stop to the cruel spectacle of the new year travel crunch. To do so, the authorities can just extend the workers' holiday, and stagger it. If the break must coincide with traditional festivals so that we can celebrate them, we can also use the Ching Ming festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival as the alternative occasions for a family reunion. Some workers travel thousands of miles in overcrowded trains for the purpose of seeing their family, but can stay at home for just three or four days before they have to rush back to town. This is hardly enough time for a true reunion, especially if the workers have children to whom they have the duty of care.

“Far better would be to let these children visit their parents during their school breaks in the summer and winter, so that the family can spend time together, however briefly. But, for this to happen, some conditions would have to be met. First, the workers' living conditions must be improved; second, their income must be raised. This is not too much to ask for. Migrant workers who work hard year round ought to be able to afford to have their children by their side for a few months a year. If they cannot, this is surely a deprivation of their basic human rights.

“Taking the longer view, the New Year mass travel that is repeated year after year is not something Chinese people can be proud of; in fact, it is deeply shameful. The most inhumane part of the so-called tradition is the absurdity of the hukou system, the household registration system that forces a whole class of citizens to leave their family in search of work in faraway places so that they can earn enough to feed and clothe their family, send their children to school and ensure care for their parents. Without the hukou system, that ties every Chinese citizen to his or her place of origin, there would have been little need for the miserable journey during the holidays to try to get home.

“Using their plight to sing the praises of ‘tradition’ is ridiculous. Instead, we ought to ask ourselves if a people and a government that profess to cherish the family and familial love would allow hundreds of millions of their compatriots to lead such a perverse life.

“Extending the workers' holiday period and raising their salaries, and even reforming the hukou system, are not as difficult as some people claim, if the alternative is the status quo of the cruel mass travel. But there are interest groups that are unwilling to help these workers and, worse still, see their plight as a festive spectacle. This is the true wonder of the season.”

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