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Migrant Workers (2:57) Excerpt from film "To Have and Have Not" July 2002
Migrant construction workers in Beijing describe their living conditions.

Country: China
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    Guiding Questions
    1. Why might opportunities for migrant workers in Beijing be characterized as a "mixed blessing"?

    2. How do the circumstances of migrant workers in China compare to those of workers drawn to urban areas in other times and other societies?

    Background Essay
    Living conditions for migrant construction workers in Beijing, China are extremely poor. There are more than three million illegal laborers in Beijing alone and a small army of migrants can be found at any construction site in the city. Unfortunately, there are no state services for these migrants and they can be deported back to their village at any time.

    Since the late 1970s, China has shifted from a centrally planned economy that was largely closed to international trade to a more market-oriented economy that has a rapidly growing private sector and is a major player in the global economy. Reforms began in the agricultural, industrial, and financial sectors, and labor regulations were relaxed. The government also focused on foreign trade as a major vehicle for economic growth, and to encourage foreign investment, China created special economic zones in coastal cities.

    As the result of adopting economic reforms and joining the World Trade Organization in December 2001, China's per capita income has grown at an average annual rate of more than 8% over the last three decades. While poverty has been drastically reduced, this rapid growth has been accompanied by rising income inequalities, especially between rural and urban areas.

    One specific change China has been forced to embrace as a result of joining the WTO is to liberalize the movement of labor within the country. During the Maoist era of the 1950s, China instituted an inherited residency permit system that defined where its citizens could work. This system, or "hukou," made it extremely difficult for rural residents to leave their hometowns and move to cities to work. Restructuring the hukou system has been a very controversial topic even though many Community Party leaders recognize it is an impediment to economic progress. The system still exists, but enforcement of the residency permits has been relaxed in recent years. By the early 21st century an estimated 200 million Chinese lived outside their officially-registered areas. While it is easier for these migrants to work in cities than ever before, they are still unofficial residents of the cities and as a result have very limited access to education and government services. Many are forced to live a precarious existence in company dormitories or shanty towns, and in several respects occupy a social and economic status similar to illegal immigrants.

    The Wide Angle film TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT explores the human side of China's newly liberalized market economy. In the film, the increasing income gap between rich and poor is highlighted in vivid detail. The gated communities, luxury vehicles, and seemingly boundless consumption of China's newly rich is seen in stark contrast to the plight of migrant workers, who struggle to eke out a living and to educate their children at the margins of urban society.

    WORKER (translated):
    I came in March to Beijing.

    Oh yeah do you like it?

    WORKER (translated):
    I like Beijing.

    What is this here that you're building?

    He's building a kindergarten.

    Kindergarten. Uh-huh. And how much does he get paid?

    (SUPER: Jiang Xueqin, Reporter)

    WORKER (translated):
    ("500 to 600 yuan")

    I make sixty, seventy dollars a month.

    Where do you come from?

    WORKER (translated):
    I'm from Hubei province.

    WORKER (translated):
    Hubei province.



    Seems like there is nobody left in Hubei.

    The Chinese government does not want reporters observing conditions at migrant work sites but there are more than three million illegal laborers in Beijing alone and a small army of migrants can be found at any construction site in the city.

    Who's our friend here? What's his name?

    GUO XIAO HUI, MIGRANT WORKER (translated):
    My name is Guo Xiao Hui. I've been in Beijing for six, seven years. I make two dollars a day working over ten hours a day.

    GUO XIAO HUI (translated):
    She's my wife. They came together from a home village. There's no industry in my hometown.

    And where do you sleep?

    GUO XIAO HUI (translated):
    Ah I sleep here -- in this room. I sleep right here. This is where we cook our food -- with the rice cooker. This is all my summer clothes.

    GUO'S WIFE (translated):
    I want to be back in my village with my kid.

    When was the last time you saw your child?

    GUO'S WIFE (translated):
    In February.

    You really think you have a chance to get back to your village or you're gonna be stuck here?

    GUO XIAO HUI (translated):
    Very slim chance.

    GUO'S WIFE (translated):
    It makes me sad to think how poor we are and how we can't make any money.

    There are no state social services for these migrants and they can be deported back to their village at any time. If they need housing, healthcare or schools for their children they have to create the system themselves.

    We're here on the outskirts of Beijing. My name is Kristin Looney. I'm an American woman working here at middle -- at the middle school branch of the school as an English teacher.

    This is a school specifically for migrants with low income. There are a lot of migrants in Beijing. In, in just this city alone there's about three million at least.

    You can't become a legal Beijing resident very easily um, because of some pretty severe legal restrictions on that.

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