China Plus:Life on the move: the struggle and dreams of migrant workers

新闻来源: 中国中铁四局集团 浏览次数:时间:2019-06-18

Migrant workers are seen as one of the driving forces behind China

Migrant workers are seen as one of the driving forces behind China's miraculous economic expansion over the past several decades. [Photo: vcg.com]

A visible sign of the expanding Chinese economy is the growing high-speed railway network connecting cities in this vast land from east to west and from north to south.

For every new line under construction, open-air factories making precast box girders are dotted around.

These factories, often in the wilderness, are hours' drive from the nearest town or village.

But they act as both workplaces and temporary homes for hundreds or even thousands of people, who work and stay there for years.

The Feixi Precast Box Girder Factory is just one example of this kind of complex. It's in Feixi County, east China's Anhui Province.

The factory, more accurately a construction site, has working and living quarters as large as 10 football pitches in total.

As we arrive in the morning working hours, in early summer, we see hundreds of workers are busy making huge concrete-and-steel structures—called box girders, or simply beams.

A short but sturdy man called Xu Luping is overseeing all these processes, as he's the team leader.

"There are six key steps in making beams—preparing steel, putting up molds, conducting pre-stressed operations, applying pressurized slurry, and doing the waterproofing. Every step is crucial.

“The pre-stressed operation in particular has to be carefully done to make sure the beams can withstand the stress of travelling trains, cars, and so on," explains Xu Luping, an expert in making precast box-girders, a key component of the pile-and-girder foundation of the high-speed railway.

He points out that to ensure the quality of each piece of the box girders, the pre-stressed operation is of paramount importance:

"This is the pre-stressed operation. We are using four sets of jacks simultaneously to do the operation. We have to do it according to the accurate computer calculation of how much stress should be applied to the structure and to what extent the structure should be stretched.

“To put it simply, the beam becomes a spring so that the train moving on it will not crush it. Without the pre-stressed operation, the beam could break after years of trains running on it."

Because of the technical significance of the operation, Xu adds that all the workers involved in it should be certified by a construction company before they can do the work.

Not only that – any certified worker will need to undergo on-site training before they actually do the job.

Xu points to a thin man with sunglasses, who is conducting the operation.

After finishing his bit of work and walking out of the danger spot, the man tells us he's from neighboring Henan Province, and has worked at the factory for more than a year.

He only gives his name as Mr. Zhang. Aged 27, Zhang took the job after three months of training. He says his work needs a lot of skill and focus:

"We must ensure that the steel bars and the mold are strictly in place. We must always keep the quality of our work in mind and do our best to ensure it."

Xu Luping says safety measures are critical because there are dangers in the operation:

"Workers carrying out the pre-stressed operation should be very attentive. If a worker makes a mistake, it will not only harm the quality of the girders but also may cause accidents. So, protective shields are put in place around the girders to protect the workers."

According to Xu, workers at the Feixi factory can build two 32-meter-long box girders each day. Each of the box girders weighs more than 800 tons.

The factory's normal working shift is from 7.30 am to 11am, and then from 2pm until 6pm.

But workers often need to work extra hours or earlier in the morning or late in the evening to meet engineering requirements:

"On a hot day like today, we need to pour the concrete in the early morning or in the evening. For the sake of the quality of our projects, we have to pour the concrete in temperatures under 30 degrees Celsius."

Xu Luping is a star worker at the construction site. His rich experience in building high-speed railway box girders has made him someone his colleagues turn to whenever they encounter difficulties.

Thirty-nine year old Xu Luping (in blue shirt), now an expert in making precast box-girders, left his rural home at sixteen and has since worked at various construction sites as a migrant worker. [Photo: courtesy of China Tiesiju Civil Engineering Group]

Thirty-nine year old Xu Luping (in blue shirt), now an expert in making precast box-girders, left his rural home at sixteen and has since worked at various construction sites as a migrant worker. [Photo: courtesy of China Tiesiju Civil Engineering Group]

But this sturdy man's skills have not come easily. Xu Luping was born into a poor farming family in the county of Feidong, Anhui Province.

In 1996, the teenager had to drop out of school after finishing nine years of compulsory education because his family was so poor.

At sixteen, the minimum legal age a person can enter the labor market in China, Xu went to the construction site of Shanghai Pudong International Airport, which was in the process of being built.

"My first job was doing the masonry work at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport. I earned 13 yuan a day," recalls Xu.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the annual average wage of urban residents stood at just above 6,000 yuan. This meant that an urban worker earned 17 yuan a day on average.

As a low-skilled migrant worker, Xu's earnings were much lower than this national average.

Still, worse things happened to the young man the next year:

"I went to work in northeast China, where there were higher wages on offer, in 1997. But I got nothing after a year's work. Our boss vanished without paying us a single penny. This kind of thing often happened in the 1990s. It was too bad."

In addition to this illegal treatment, lots of migrant workers like Xu often suffered from inhospitable living conditions.

"As a migrant worker, I lived a drifting life and had no permanent workplace or residence. Living conditions for our workers were very bad. We often lived in shabby shelters simply made of planks. When it rained, people inside would get soaked," Xu remembers.

Migrant workers, or Nongmingong in Chinese, literally mean farmers-turned-workers. They mostly come from rural areas or small towns and work far from home, often in developed coastal regions.

This socio-economic group first came into existence in the 1980s, when China entered the era of reform and opening up, which has led to market-oriented economic growth.

For a long time, being a migrant worker was not something to be proud of. Indeed, it meant dangerous working conditions and filthy living standards as well as low wages.

Faced with such hardships, Xu Luping says literature, especially foreign novels, like Jane Eyre, offered him comfort and encouragement.

Drawing inspiration from what he read, the young man also wrote diaries and poems to record his life and stimulate his mood:

"One of my poems was called Man. I wrote it to encourage myself when I was in a low mood. Several lines of the poem are: whenever I'm under stress and burnout, those hazy, bygone days reappear in my mind, making me downhearted; and my thoughts, like the Sun in the fall, shine on the chaotic dust. This was to urge me not to give up, no matter how hard life was."

To the relief of Xu Luping and many other migrant workers, government help began to arrive in the early 2000s.

In 2003, the Chinese government started an "anti-wage arrears crackdown" after the then Premier Wen Jiabao demanded the payment of overdue wages on behalf of a migrant worker.

Three years later, the State Council, China's cabinet, issued a policy document, requiring authorities at various levels to protect the rights and interests of the migrant workers better.

With such policy support, Xu Luping says it's rare for migrant workers not to get their wages on time nowadays.

Rising from the harsh days of his early career, Xu has wasted no time in improving his skills by working hard at various kinds of construction sites.

Between 2003 and 2008, Xu Luping worked for projects like the Hangzhou Bay Cross-Sea Bridge and the Beijing Tianjin Intercity High-Speed Railway.

The projects have offered this hard-working man great opportunities to learn to build beams—structures needed in various infrastructure projects.

"I have been learning and exploring every detail of building various types of beams. Building each kind of beams needs particular standards and skills. But in general, we follow the same principle in building pre-stressed beams," Xu says.

Now with rich experience behind him, Xu has become an expert in the field and has also made a series of improvements to various procedures, improving efficiency and reducing waste of materials.

He notes that the building skills of Chinese workers have greatly improved and standardized since finishing building the Beijing-Tianjin high-speed railway over a decade ago:

"That railway was the first high-speed line in China. Our workers were making tests and trying to improve our skills to gather data for the national standards. So it took our workers more than two years to make 300 box girders. Now with our standardized operation procedures we could do it in less than a year."

In 2009, Xu Luping's superb skills got him a job at the China Tiesiju Civil Engineering Group, a major state-owned infrastructure building firm.

Since working there, Xu has been put in charge of the beam building factories whenever there's a new high-speed railway line being built.

Indeed, the Feixi Precast Box Girder Factory we visited at the beginning of our story is the latest project he oversees.

Put up in 2016, the factory offers pretty good working and living conditions to its more than 400 migrant workers.

Stepping into the factory site, we see rows of two-story steel-structure residential buildings, looking like a small village.

The exterior of the buildings has been decorated like traditional Anhui-style architecture, bringing a sense of beauty.

Having experienced the harshness in his early days of work, Xu Luping notes many improvements in the treatment of migrant workers:

"Now our workers live in much better, specially-built dormitories. Also there's an air conditioner in each of the rooms. You can see toilets and a laundry room for the workers in this site. There's also a basketball court, a small reading room and an internet café for them to use after work."

Specially built dormitories and facilities like a basketball court at the Feixi Precast Box Girder Factory are in contrast to the filthy and poor living conditions migrants workers are often subjected to. [Photo: Chinaplus]

Specially built dormitories and facilities like a basketball court at the Feixi Precast Box Girder Factory are in contrast to the filthy and poor living conditions migrants workers are often subjected to. [Photo: Chinaplus]

Thirty-one-year-old Cao Longxiang has been binding steel bars at the factory. Cao says he is satisfied with his work and life:

"I've been working at this site for about a year. My life and work here are good for me. Six workers share a room, which has an air-conditioner. The living conditions here are fairly good compared with the living conditions of other construction sites I worked at before."

Cao has been binding steel bars for 11 years, and this work has also taken him to Singapore and Saudi Arabia.

Now, by working eight to nine hours a day at the Feixi factory, the young migrant worker says he can earn 8,000 to 10,000 yuan a month.

This is fairly good considering that the average salary for someone working at a major company in 2018 was less than 6,000 yuan a month, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

But when we ask how much he earns, Xu Luping gives a very vague answer:

"My wage is fairly good. I'm satisfied with my life."

Xu got married in 2008, at the age of 28. Now Xu and his wife are working hard to raise their ten-year-old son.

Though satisfied with his current life, Xu is thinking about the future, saying he has to renew his skills along with technological improvements and economic transformation:

"The work in this construction site is going to be done soon. So I will have to go and work on other projects. I will need to master new skills. I shouldn't stick to high-speed railway projects only, or what will I do if China doesn't need to build any more high-speed railways? So I have to constantly learn new things to prepare for new work."

The Feixi factory is due to close by the end of this year. Xu and his co-workers will have to migrate to new construction sites, hopefully with similarly good wages and living conditions.

There are hundreds of millions of migrant workers like Xu and his co-workers in China.

A report released by the National Bureau of Statistics says the number was more than 288 million in 2018. This means almost one in five Chinese people belong to this group.

Often called a backbone of the Chinese economy, the group has faced great difficulties.

Although they might live and work in a city for years, they're not counted as urban residents and thus not entitled to many of the public services and social welfare that their urban counterparts enjoy.

This is why so many migrant workers leave their children behind in their rural homes, because they don't have education rights in the city's public schools.

Fortunately, things are changing for the better.

Policy support has been rolled out for the group in the most recent years. Migrant workers are now allowed to register as urban residents, thus giving them access to public and welfare services in the city.

At the same time, migrant workers who successfully register as urban residents can still retain their farmland and homesteads in their home villages.

In April, 2019, the National Development and Reform Commission, China's top economic planner, issued a task list for a new kind of urbanization within this year.

The document says the authorities will speed up the process for migrant workers to register as urban residents, where the population is less than five million.

With the policy support, it's hoped these migrant workers, who have changed the face of China with their own bare hands, will face fewer obstacles and difficulties in their pursuit of better lives.

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