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Low wages, cruel bosses, no rights

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Beijing — It's a steamy evening in the cramped dormitory room where Huang Benlin spends his nights, and violence is on his mind.

He is a small wiry man in a grease-stained shirt, a migrant worker from a small village in Sichuan province who has suffered 24 years of low wages, exploitation, long hours and cruel bosses. Now, he is plotting his revenge.

One of his bosses, the owner of a trucking company, has refused to pay him 4800 yuan (about $720 Canadian) in owed wages. For a migrant, it is a huge sum of money — almost as much as Mr. Huang normally sends home from a year of hard labour in Beijing's construction zones.

He went to the courts, struggled through a year of legal procedures, and lost at every level. His former boss had bribed the judges, and the prosecutors were indifferent. So now he is ready for a more brutal response.

"I'll go to my ex-boss for one last talk," he muses. "I know he won't give me my money, but I'll use the chance to scout out his place. Then I'll come back at night to destroy the trucks. I'll smash them with heavy tools, or I'll ambush the trucks on the road."

Mr. Huang, a weather-beaten 39-year-old with a wife and two children back home in Sichuan province, has persuaded himself that an act of vengeance will force the authorities to pay attention to him.

"The police will arrest me, but they'll ask me why I did it. And finally they will have to listen to the injustices that I suffered."

In the desperate world of China's migrant workers, it almost makes sense. Violence often erupts between the labourers and their employers. Usually, of course, it is the bosses who win. On at least five occasions, Mr. Huang's bosses have hired thugs to assault those who demanded their wages.

Of the 10 workers who never got their wages from the trucking boss last year, Mr. Huang was the only one who took action. His workmates gave up and went home. They were unwilling to file a lawsuit, which costs a month's wages or more. Mr. Huang is a rarity: a migrant who fights back.

"We feel like slaves," he says. "We have to obey our bosses or we won't get our money. We're always under their control. There's always a feeling of insecurity. It's like being a prisoner."

Though often abused and neglected, migrants are the muscle of China's economic miracle. They build the skyscrapers and expressways, they make the cheap export goods, they drive the trucks and lug the steel and cement that has lifted China into its boom years.

They do the toughest and dirtiest jobs that nobody else will do. It is their labour that allowed China to become the factory to the world.

The flood of peasants into China's cities is the biggest migration in human history. Already, some 200 million have abandoned their impoverished villages to move to the booming centres. Another 500 million could be on the move in the next half century.

Yet their working conditions are often horrendous. Under the Communist system of residence registration, migrant workers are controlled by an apartheid-like system that discriminates against those who lack a city residence permit. A complex web of discriminatory laws and policies has made it almost impossible for peasants to obtain an urban residence permit, so most migrants have a semi-legal or illegal status. Lacking legal rights, they are easily exploited by ruthless employers.

They have no social or medical insurance, no unemployment or housing benefits, no trade unions, no education rights for their children, and no written contracts with employers — even though Chinese law supposedly guarantees these rights. They live in monitored and controlled compounds, where they must beg for permission to go outside. They sleep in crude dormitory rooms of 20 square metres, usually shared with 15 to 20 workers.

Many earn as little as $1 for a 12-hour day, far below the supposed minimum wage. They often work for six or seven days a week, sometimes for days and nights without a break. Most are paid only $60 to $125 a month — much of which goes to pay for their food and bed and the stacks of permits they need in order to work. Their wages have barely increased over the past decade, even as the cost of living rises. Without any unions, they must resort to violence or expensive lawsuits if a boss refuses to pay their wages.

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