During a visit to the People’s Republic of China in July, Marilyn Bechtel talked with trade unionists at the enterprise, city, provincial and national levels, to learn how they are helping workers meet the challenge of economic and social restructuring going on in China today. This is the second of two articles; the first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue.

In the last quarter century, former agricultural workers and peasants have increasingly migrated from rural China to work all or part of the year in the cities, as industrialization and urbanization have greatly accelerated with the policies of “reform and opening up” which have brought reorganization of state-owned enterprises and development of a private sector featuring both domestic and foreign capital.

This complicated process is at the heart of what the Communist Party of China calls “building socialism with Chinese characteristics,” in order to overcome lingering poverty and backwardness in a developing country with a huge population, a large, divergent land mass, and a legacy of devastation from war and occupation.

Official figures show that the country’s 130 million “migrant workers” (one tenth of the total population) now outnumber settled urban workers, and constitute the majority of China’s industrial workforce. Most but not all are from rural areas — in 2003, over 98 million rural workers took jobs outside their home townships — up from 15 million in 1990.

These workers face many of the same problems encountered by immigrant workers in the United States. Many enter the urban environment with limited skills, and start their life in the city as construction or service workers, security guards, hotel and restaurant workers and janitors.

Just as the policies of the AFL-CIO have changed profoundly in recent years and our national labor federation now champions the rights of all immigrants — documented and undocumented, organized and unorganized — so too the Chinese trade union movement has taken up the challenge of organizing and representing this important sector of the workforce.

The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which formerly organized only workers with urban residence permits, now makes special efforts to organize migrants. The ACFTU announced in August 2003 that it would recruit as many migrant workers as possible. In the first month, over 34 million joined local unions in cities and townships throughout the country.

During a conversation last July in the northeastern industrial city of Shenyang, the head of the city trade union federation, Wu En Tao, told me migrant workers there now number about 470,000. “They come from all walks of life,” he said. “Many are seasonal, working in the tourist and construction industries in summer, but in cold weather they return home, or go elsewhere.”

Migrant workers are comparatively disadvantaged, and usually are not well organized, Wu said.

The city union federation makes special efforts to incorporate them into all the different trade unions, and into county, township and village union organizations as well. “We can enroll most of them, and then we can uphold their interests under the labor law and in connection with social insurance,” he said. “We can help workers and their families who are having difficulties.”

Later, in Beijing, I discussed the issue with Tong Qing Feng, vice president of the China Institute of Industrial Relations, who pointed out that while migrants are disadvantaged compared to long-time urban residents, they are generally better off than if they had remained in rural areas. Unions organizing migrants take on new characteristics and new forms, he said. Because construction workers, in particular, move around a lot, Tong said unions try to build links between hometowns and worksites to create better conditions.

“Some enterprises are too small for separate unions,” Ton added. “So we are flexible, and build unions according to conditions in different regions and industries.”

One such new form is the community-based trade union. At the same time urban management and services have gradually shifted to local communities within large cities, the ranks of community service workers and local construction workers — both areas employing many migrant workers — have grown greatly. Many migrants also work in small groups at private enterprises. The community-based union helps accommodate both trends.

In the eastern city of Nanjing, such unions have made sure all the communities have signed contracts with their service employees, who are mostly migrant workers. They have also represented migrant workers in negotiating collective labor contracts with private employers. People’s Daily quoted Chen Siming, head of Nanjing’s general trade union: “Joining community trade unions is a sign they have changed from farmer to urban citizen — a big dream for many of them.”

Another experiment is forming an all-migrant worker union. In July, China Daily wrote about such a union in Shenyang, which it said was the first of its kind in the country. The union had 4,500 members by the end of June, and, the newspaper said, “has done much to help settle many cases involving payment default issues.”

A fundamental disadvantage faced by migrants is that under the traditional “hukou” system of residence permits, most still do not have permission to live permanently in the cities. They are thus deprived of important social and political rights as well as social security benefits. This situation is changing, however, as cities and counties throughout the country test the granting of permanent residence permits to migrants. At a press conference in Beijing in July, Zhao Baige, vice director of the State Population and Family Planning Commission, pledged that the government will equally protect the rights and interests of migrants and the permanent urban population. She added that restrictions on employment, medical care, education and social security for migrants will be lifted.

In China rural incomes are rising relatively rapidly (about 4 percent annually over the last decade), but urban incomes are rising twice as fast. Despite the disadvantages, including wages typically about 70 percent that of permanent urban workers, most migrants still earn more than their rural counterparts. Many contribute significantly to the rural economy through the remittances they send home (another parallel with immigrant workers in the U.S.).

However, an article published by Xinhua news agency in May 2004 makes clear the difficulties they face. “Migrant workers take on the heavy, dirty work disdained by their urban counterparts, and even when there are rural and urban workers on the same job, they do not reap the same benefits,” Xinhua said. “Rural workers get no insurance, subsidies or social security, and have to pay a high entrance fee when sending their children to school. The worst aspect of their situation is the unfair treatment they are subjected to, like working overtime with no pay, and being chosen to do dangerous work with no protective clothing or equipment. If they fall ill, or get injured to the extent of disablement, they are simply fired.” At the National People’s Congress session in March, ACFTU leaders called for far-reaching legal reforms, and special enforcement efforts, to assure migrants’ rights to organize, and their personal freedom, equality in employment, wages, and health and safety.

A common problem for migrant workers — and one the unions are campaigning to overcome — is late payment or non-payment of wages. Payment of wages on a yearly basis is being replaced by regulations requiring monthly payment. The ACFTU said at the end of 2003, migrant workers’ unpaid wages totaled as much as 100 billion yuan ($12.1 billion), with construction companies and caterers the worst offenders. A drive by unions and local governments around the country has helped millions of workers recoup their wages, and has convinced many migrants of the importance of unions.

Industrial health and safety is another crucial concern, especially since so many migrants work in mining and construction. Besides efforts to cut the injury rate through better law enforcement and to close small, unsafe mines, occupational injury insurance is now increasingly being extended to migrant workers. In Shanghai, an occupational injury insurance program was extended July 1 to all cover local enterprises that are part of the city’s employee social security system, including state owned enterprises, government institutions and private businesses.

Families also suffer special stress, whether they migrate as a family or some members stay behind. Health problems of women and children in migrant families is the subject of serious study by the State Council’s Working Committee on Women and Children. In education, too, new concepts are being tested to break down barriers, including lowering or eliminating the often prohibitive special fees charged migrant students. In Beijing, extra fees once charged by public elementary and junior high schools have been abolished, and the city budget now includes $4.2 million to help migrant children from poor families finish education through junior high.

In sum, while China’s migrant workers and their families continue to face many challenges, the special attention the country’s trade union movement is giving to organizing them, and the work being done by government at the national and local level to abolish discriminatory practices, are opening the path for migrants to overcome discrimination and to take their place as full and equal members of China’s working class.

The author can be reached at mbechtel@pww.org.