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August 5, 2009

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Migrant workers earn the right to become citizens of Shanghai

THE image of the typical migrant worker in Shanghai is of someone who works hard, often in dirty conditions, but hardly earns the chance to put down permanent roots in the city.

However since May, 40 of them who earned the title of national-level outstanding migrant worker have received permanent residence permits, also called hukou, under China's Cabinet's special approval, and can settle down in Shanghai.

Leaving their fields to go to work in Shanghai, they used to face the same barriers as other outsiders under a strict household registration system. But with Shanghai hukou, they now can enjoy the same privileges of education, employment, healthcare and social services as local residents.

Compared with those 40 exceptional cases, other migrant workers are still struggling with a life of halfway existence, as Shanghai's recent policy relaxing of residency rules hasn't reached them.

Shanghai is the country's first large city to ease its previously rigid hukou system in a bid to attract skilled professionals.

Although making the city richer and more productive, most migrant workers in construction or factory work don't fit into the highly skilled technician or professional category it needs.

Some migrants are looking forward to a more relaxed migration policy to eliminate restrictions on them, but some say they never count on any future in cities.

Shanghai's "floating population" totaled about 6.5 million last year, nearly one-third of the city's total population, according to Shanghai Statistics Bureau. Outstanding worker

Li Ying's 8-square-meter home is on the second floor of a public lavatory in an old residential neighborhood in Shanghai's Zhabei District.

After serving in the toilet as a cleaner for nearly four years and living above it, the 28-year-old Jiangsu Province native became one of 40 migrant workers in Shanghai to receive hukou. Li deems the coveted hukou as "pennies from heaven, I never dare to dream of it."

Li's luck came as a reward for being chosen as a national-level outstanding migrant worker.

At the end of the award meeting in Beijing last November, China's Deputy Premier Zhang Dejiang told 1,000 migrant workers that they were allowed to transfer hukou from their rural hometown to the cities they work in. Tears rolled down Li's face before the deputy premier had finished his words. "It's far more practical than giving us money or honor," Li says.

Coming to Shanghai as a 17-year-old, Li landed her first job as a cotton spinner in early 1998, when Shanghai's textile industry began to reduce 862,000 spindles and make 35,000 workers redundant.

The factory's closure led to her working in different restaurants and selling red wine part time. In October 2005, Li found a job to Shanghai Zhahuan Lingshi Sanitation Engineering Co Ltd as a toilet cleaner. Thinking over the job "which even migrant workers disdain" for months, she took it to have her daughter by her side during work.

To completely remove odor from the lavatory, Li cleans the toilet after every customer, doing the cleaning work over 200 times a day. After 17 hours' work, she and her husband spend another hour flushing out and cleaning the drains.

Li spends her own money adding hand wash, soap, sandalwood and a water machine to the lavatory. The toilet even has plants, goldfish and a bench made by Li's husband.

Li's hard work has earned her city-level and nation-level honors, and later the hukou.

"I have much pride in being a Shanghainese," Li says. "But what's more important is I don't need to worry about my retirement and my child's education."

Before, with a fixed monthly salary of 1,200 yuan (US$176), slightly higher than the city's minimum wage of 960 yuan a month, Li and her husband felt little financial security.

A migrant worker will get an annual allowance of 1,200 yuan after working 12 months in Shanghai, under "comprehensive social insurance." Compared with "urban social insurance," which urbanities enjoy, migrant workers' insurance provides no pension, lower medical insurance, no birth insurance or unemployment insurance.

"In the past, I always joked with my husband that after we returned to our home village, with 2,000 yuan a year, we still needed to follow the plough," Li says.

However, Li now feels more secure as she, a Shanghai hukou holder, can enjoy "urban social insurance."

The child of parents without a Shanghai hukou also can't easily enroll in public elementary and junior high school and they are forced to go back to their hometown to take the senior high school entrance exam, which Li used to worry about for her five-year-old daughter.

"Some public schools claim they enroll migrant children, but in actual practice they prioritize local children," Li says. In such situations it makes no enrollment spaces for migrant students, while paying extra fees as a transient student costs 2,000 yuan a semester, Li says.

Li says 90 percent of parents in her home village leave their children at home, since raising a child in the city costs much more.

For Li, when the daydream of her daughter attending university in Shanghai one day becomes possible, she will be very happy.

Better-paid work

The daughter of Zhao Dexi, a Jiangsu Province decoration worker in Shanghai, failed to meet the university level in this year's national college entrance exam.

She expects to stay in high school in Jiangsu's Taizhou City for an extra year to take the exam again, but Zhao insists she drop the idea.

"I'm asking my acquaintances to keep her a place in a local medical school," Zhao says. "If that fails, she'd better learn driving and stop thinking of entering a junior college."

The driving force behind Zhao's reasoning is simple: the odds of landing a job. Finding work as a nurse or driver is possible, while many junior college students in Zhao's home village stay at home after graduation.

If he hadn't been working in Shanghai for 11 years, Zhao couldn't have supported his daughter till the end of high school. Since 2005, the annual balance of Zhao's bank account stands at about 20,000 yuan (US$2,938).

Zhao says he's partially responsible for his daughter's poor study. "My wife accompanies me working here, and no one monitors her," the 42-year-old father says.

But leaving the daughter back in their home village was Zhao's only choice. He sleeps on the floors of unfinished apartments, changing his lodging every two months or so across the city or in neighboring provinces. "At least she has a stable living when boarding at school in her home village," Zhao says.

Zhao moved out of subsistence salary into better-paid work in Shanghai in 1998. In his furniture-making company in Jiangsu, he earned 2,200 yuan a year.

The carpenter worked with a team of his relatives or hometown villagers and became boss of a three-member team in 1998.

The team subcontracts projects from a private company, which has a contract with the apartment owner, or strikes a deal with the apartment owner directly. Companies never sign labor contracts with the team. For Zhao, payment can be delayed up to a year, and he might even end up with nothing.

There is no industrial injury insurance either. Zhao says he has witnessed two injuries in his working history - a worker was blinded in one eye by a wood chip, and another worker pared off a knuckle using a saw. "They still work, just not as quick and nimble as before," Zhao says.

Zhao starts work at 6am and doesn't stop until midnight. He now shuttles between three apartments his team has contracted to do decoration. In a typical day, he leaves an apartment near the Shanghai Railway Station at 11am, works at southwestern Minhang District till 9pm and drives his electric moped to eastern Sanlin area in Pudong.

Although an elder brother of his grandfather lives in Shanghai, Zhao seldom visits him. "I went to his home once. He didn't give me a cup of water," Zhao says. "People like me are trouble to him."

Zhao never thought of moving permanently to Shanghai.

"I've no idea how many more years I can work," Zhao says. "When I don't have energy for such labor, I will go to my home village and fall back on farming."

Knowledge is power

Shen Houping, a 33-year-old maintenance worker on sanitation vehicles, buries his heads in books in his leisure time, repeatedly mentioning "knowledge is power," the famous aphorism of Sir Francis Bacon.

Shen received a junior college diploma in business administration from Shanghai Television University last week.

"Lots of people asked me if I attend college to become an official," Shen says. "I said no. Everything you learn pays for itself, whether it appears practical or not."

Shen plans to invest another two years taking a university degree.

The Jiangsu Province native, who grew up in a farming family, turned himself into a skilled vehicle maintenance worker after he arrived here in 1996.

When Shen was apprenticed with two technicians in Shanghai Zhahuan Lingshi Sanitation Engineering Co Ltd for the initial year, he made extra efforts by investigating problems using technical books at night in his 12-square-meter home adjacent to a garbage refuse station.

Shen spent a half of his salary on books or tuition fees. He later made a series of technical improvements to refuse collecting trucks.

Shen was chosen as one of two migrant worker delegates to sit in the plenary meeting of Shanghai People's Congress in 2006. During the congress, Shen asked delegates to launch more safety training for migrant workers on work sites to prevent industrial injury.

Shen has been elected a delegate for Zhabei District People's Congress. A proposal he made in 2007 was to expand the function of the monthly 20 yuan (US$2.93) in migrant workers' comprehensive insurance card from simply buying over-the-counter drugs to seeing a doctor and subsidizing hospital charges. The medical policy remains the same today, but Shen feels optimistic.

"Transformation for such a city-wide medical system is hard. If it waits three or five years of policy change after my proposal being reviewed, it's worthwhile."


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