Radio Free Asia: Calls Grow for Migrant Rights

China Labour Bulletin appears in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

China’s acute labor shortage could result in better terms for workers.

AFP: A migrant laborer returns to his home in Anhui province after being laid off from his job in Guangdong, Nov. 7, 2008.

HONG KONG—Buoyed by a wave of new orders, Chinese companies are scrambling to recruit manual laborers, as pressure mounts on the country's lawmakers to boost the rights of China's millions of migrant workers.

"We didn't manage to hire anyone yet," said the human resources manager in an electronics factory in Dongguan, a key manufacturing hub in southern China's Guangdong province.

He said that teams of recruiters had been out on the streets in Pearl River Delta cities in recent weeks, trying to headhunt workers from other companies.

"Our factory has a lot of orders to fill right now, but there is a huge labor shortage," he said.

Dongguan is one of a number of Chinese cities to raise its minimum wage for workers in recent weeks to 960 yuan (U.S. $140) per month, from 850 yuan during the financial crisis.

Commissions offered

The labor market is so tight in some cities that middlemen and labor agents are offering commissions to anyone able to recruit large numbers of people to fill the factory floors of the Pearl River Delta and other coastal provinces.

"We will pay 50 yuan per month, per worker in commission," said a recruitment agent for the Taiwan-invested Fushikang Co. in the eastern province of Jiangsu.

"The pay we offer them is 2,400 yuan a month, which has risen by 600 yuan, and we want them to help us find 2,000 or 3,000 workers."

"They will have to do overtime if they want to make that amount, though. Overtime pays eight yuan per hour," he said.

A recruiter for a Taiwanese factory in Guangdong's Humen township said he is having similar problems.

"It's hard to attract migrant workers right now," he said.

"A lot of electronics companies are short of labor, so they'll basically take any number of people."

Better treatment

An official who answered the phone at the Dongguan municipal labor bureau said enterprises would now have to be more careful about how they treat workers.

"If you pay them so badly, who is going to come to work for you?" he said. "A lot of companies have even stopped getting insurance for workplace injuries for their workers. Perhaps they wouldn't leave if they did that for them."

"But then again they might work for 10 days for you and then a friend will say to them, this place has better wages, and so they will just leave again. They don't have any obligation to the company because the company hasn't promised them anything in return," said the official, who declined to give his name.

Beijing Technical University professor Hu Xingdou said that there isn't so much a labor shortage as a general unwillingness on the part of some 20 million or 30 million rural residents to work for so little money in an insecure environment.

"China's manufacturing industry is very low-tech, and its profits are extremely volatile," Hu said. "The starting wage is very low, and most workers can't accept such a low wage, which hasn't changed much in 10 or 20 years."

"We have reached an impasse in the supply and demand of labor in Chinese industry," he added.

He said the reluctance of rural residents to flood back into coastal cities following mass layoffs during the financial crisis is also linked to a sense of injustice over their social status and legal rights.

"When rural residents come to the cities, they face all manner of discrimination," Hu said.

"It's hard for them to enjoy the same level of social security that the city dwellers get."

Migration curbs

In the run-up to the annual meetings of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing this month, top law enforcement official Zhou Yongkang called for the abolition of internal controls on migration between China's cities and countryside.

The political elite has also heard increasing calls for collective bargaining for China's workers amid an apparent shortage of factory workers, who are frequently in dispute with companies over pay and benefits, according to the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin (CLB).

"Hukou reform, and the rights of migrant workers generally, are now set to become a major topic of debate at the NPC," the CLB said on its Web site.

It said that total abolition of the household registration, or hukou, system, would be a slow process, but it called on urban governments to take responsibility now for providing social welfare and benefits to migrant workers and their families.

"There is one practical and relatively straightforward step that urban governments could take straight away; namely shouldering the sole responsibility for the provision of schooling, medical, and social services for the children of migrant workers," it said.

Zhou Yongkang, China’s most senior security official, wrote in the Communist Party’s theoretical journal Qiushi that there is now an urgent need to end the current system of internal migration controls.

The same view has been heard in a number of state-sponsored media ahead of next week's NPC annual session.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long and in Cantonese by Li Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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