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Beijing Welcomes You

March 11, 2008

In the summer of 2007, I spent a few weeks around the construction site of the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. I was interested in the disparity between the different people populating the messy area: On the one hand, the area was filled with curious tourists like me. Most of them Chinese, who came to check out the progress and take the classic ‘I was here!’ picture that is normally the privilege of traditional tourist destinations such as the Eiffel Tower. But in even greater numbers, the countless migrant workers, who built the stadium, the aquatic center and the infrastructure surrounding both occupy the site. My interviews and images with these workers became the first in a series of investigations on migration and urban spaces, a research project to be published in 2011.

The monumental urban revitalization of China’s cities currently underway is being performed on the shoulders of 29 million migrant construction workers. Most of them are recruited in their villages by construction companies for short-term jobs, with very little training or regard for construction standards or health and safety requirements.

An estimated number of 1.5 million so-called floating people are working on construction sites in Beijing comprising10% of the city’s total population. High costs of living and the strict hukou system, which divides China’s population into rural and urban residents leaves them with no choice but to remain floating.  The hukou household registration system, introduced in 1958 to keep peasants on the land, regulates access to government services such as housing, education and health care. Chinese can access such services only in the place in which they are registered. About 950 million Chinese, 75% of the total population possesses a rural hukou.

Migrant workers travel back to their villages between jobs or for the harvest and send 90% of their salary to their families who rely on this income to survive. Migrants earn lower wages than urban residents, an average 540 yuan ($80) a month in 2004, compared to 1,350 yuan for registered urban residents. Remittances from urban to rural China are estimated to exceed $80 billion a year.

Employers provide housing at minimal cost and minimal standard on the work sites. A room of 250 square feet is typically shared by 10 people. Overcrowding is a common phenomenon and lack of electricity, potable water or heat during the winter months are often reported as the general condition in company provided housing.

Li Chuan Xin from Hunan province came for the summer of 2007 to work for a cleaning company on the site of the Olympic Stadium. A company recruiter came to his village to enlist several hundred men from the region. His salary of 50-60 RMB ($6-8) per day would only be paid out to him at the end of his stay before returning home for the harvest. Until then, he only got a small allowance, which he used to pay for food and a bunk bed in the site’s housing barracks.

For Li Chan Xin, this was his first visit to the capital, but many of his colleagues were returning for the third or fourth time to work on construction sites in the city. Spring festival at the end of April, or the harvest season in the fall are always reasons to go back to the villages but like most other migrant workers, Li Chuan Xin sees no chance to move to the city permanently and relocate his family.

Most migrants do not get health insurance from their urban employers and cannot easily access public health facilities. Similarly, the lack of access to schools and housing prevents migrants from relocating their families. They therefore remain transient, often for decades of their lives.

The Chinese government has been debating whether to loosen the hukou system since the mid-1990s. The most recent review by the Ministry of Public Security in 2005 concluded that local governments would have to extend to migrants the right to housing, education and health care, at significant cost to local governments.[1] So far, local authorities have not been able to address this challenge. Providing housing and other services is still largely left to the employer with very little government oversight. According to Human Rights Watch, the inability to present an urban hukou, still denies migrant workers basic rights within their urban environment.[2]


[1] Migration News, October 2008 Volume 14 Number 4

[2] “One Year of my blood” HRW Report, 2008