09/05/2006, 00.00
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Migrant workers: pariahs of the economic miracle

More than 40,000 people are injured at work every year in Guangdong alone. Migrant workers, the new sub-proletariat often ignored by the law, toil for miserable wages in unsafe factories and without any right to health care or compensation for injuries.

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) – Migrant workers in Communist China make up one of the most miserable sub-proletariats in the industrial world, with back-breaking working hours and barely any trade union or insurance safeguards. China's rapid economic growth, applauded by the whole world, has come about a steep price: serious injuries caused by bad working conditions, for which it is practically impossible to get any compensation.

Li Qiang, executive director of China Labour Watch, said at least 40,000 migrant workers were injured every year in just Guangdong, the heart of the economic boom. The legal working limit is eight hours, five days a week, but Li said a "typical" shift was 11 hours, seven days a week for months on end.

Li said old and unsafe machines were often used in metalworks and at manufacturers of furniture and plastics products: After slaving away for hours every day for months, "many workers often become exhausted and [accidents] happen." Ninety per cent of employers provide almost no protective gear, except in large factories. The average age of injured workers is 25. Only 17% have "some basic understanding of labour law".

Qiao Jian, head of the labour union department at the China Institute of Industrial Relations, said ex-farmers, now migrant workers, were the "new working class". But the welfare and labour relations systems did not consider them and had made "outcastes" of them, pariahs, the "untouchables in the Indian caste system".

These workers are usually not resident in the place where they work and they are deprived of their right to health care and education: at least 50% of the children of migrants do not get any education. In the building sector, admired and renowned worldwide for the rapidity with which new neighbourhoods arose, continued Qiao, only six per cent of workers received their salary every month; the rest could work for months without getting paid. Collectively, they were owed 100 billion yuan in back-pay, he said.

Yu Quanyu, a noted Communist theorist and founder of one of China's first state-owned enterprises, admitted that workers were facing degraded social status. "State-owned enterprise workers are threatened with layoffs, while migrant workers basically have no security."

The media often reports serious work injuries. Fu Wenquan, 35 years, ex-farmer of Sichuan, had barely worked for a month at a Xinshi steel wire plant in Guangzhou when a wheel pulled his hand under and crushed three of his fingers. His employer refused to give him compensation, saying Fu had not been following correct procedure and only "lent" him 5,000 yuan for his medical expenses, that Fu must pay back in a bid to avoid his fingers being amputated.

Zhuang Jinfu also comes from Sichuan. In April, after working for a month in a collapsing building in Guangzhou's Baiyun district (12 hours a day, seven days a week, for about 800 yuan a month), he had two fingers mangled when a heavy metal roller fell on his right hand.

In Guangzhou, the Hengsheng Hand Surgery Hospital is reputed to be the best in Guangdong for hand injury surgery and is always crowded. About 90% of its patients are migrant workers. It is a private clinic. Many injured workers have no social assistance and they often accept low compensation rather than face a complicated claims procedure and difficult legal process to get as much as they should. According to a report by the Public Welfare Times - a newspaper published by the Ministry of Civil Affairs - migrant workers often have to spend more than 200 days of red tape and bureaucracy before they get any compensation. And if bosses are determined not to pay, lawsuits must be filed.

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