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May 31, 2011

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Migrant workers on web bandwagon

MIGRANT workers are increasingly going online to stay in touch with family and friends in their hometowns through blogs or instant messaging services. Most go to Internet cafes as they can't afford computers, reports Liu Xin.

Zhao, a 19-year-old migrant worker preferring to be called by his surname, does not have a personal computer, a digital camera or extra money to take lavish vacations.

However, he has managed to get a photo of himself in front of London's Big Ben clock tower, which he intends to share with his colleagues.

Zhao acquired the photo by paying 15 yuan (US$2.30) at a photo studio in southwestern Beijing's urban fringe.

"It's too expensive for me to travel abroad, but I think it's fantastic to set Big Ben as the background of my photo," Zhao says. "Big Ben is a landmark in London, where my favorite soccer team plays."

The photo studio captures, edits and uploads photos to blogs for customers who don't own their own digital devices. It's a simple studio, containing only a desktop computer and a single camera in a rented room.

"We have thousands of types of backgrounds for our customers to choose from," says Shen Quanwei, the studio's manager.

"I have a QQ (a popular Chinese instant messaging program) number and a blog," says Zhao. "But I can't afford a computer.

"Migrant workers like myself usually own low-end mobile phones, which do not allow us to record or upload video clips," Zhao says.

However, the studio's uploading service lets him update his online photo album, allowing his family and colleagues to get a bit of insight into his life.

These types of photography studios are often found in urban villages in large cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen, where migrant workers flock to live and work.

"I have to turn off my mobile phone when I'm working, and I work more than 10 hours every day," Zhao says. "However, I like that I can reconnect with my family and friends during my limited spare time. It's now convenient for me to post my new photos on my blog."

"Uploading services used to be a side business for most photo studios, but now it is one of their most popular services, since more migrant workers are living in bigger cities," says Zhou Baohua, a professor of communications at the Journalism School of Fudan University in Shanghai. "The migrant workers' demand for virtual communication has pushed photo studios into expanding their online services."

In need of connection

Zhou has been researching Internet use among migrant workers in the Yangtze River Delta. After interviewing 842 migrant workers at 12 factories and construction sites in Shanghai and Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, he found that around 75 percent habitually surf the Internet.

"Nearly every single one of them has a QQ number or a blog," he says.

Wang Wenting, a 20-year-old migrant worker, works at a medical warehouse in Shanghai with a monthly salary of less than 2,000 yuan. She says she started surfing the Internet habitually three years ago, when she would spend up to four hours a day surfing the web after work.

"It's much more interesting to me than window-shopping," she says.

"I had few friends and relatives in the city, so I preferred to go online after work," she adds.

Professor Zhou believes there are many factors behind migrant workers' interest in the Internet.

"Low incomes, heavy workloads and isolated living environments have made them feel lost when they pursue their new lives in bigger cities," he says. "They are in sore need of a connection with the outside world."

Qiu Linchuan, an associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communications at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is helping Zhou with his research. Qiu has found that the younger generations of migrant workers are particularly likely to spend their spare time online.

"Some of them go straight to the Internet cafes after finishing work, rather than going home to rest," says Qiu.

However, Qiu also found that less than 20 percent of migrant workers own their own computer.

"Computers aren't cheap for them, but they're not necessarily required," says Qiu. The average migrant worker earns 2,500 yuan per month, according to Qiu's research. "In addition, devices like computers are not convenient for migrant workers to own, since they move frequently," Qiu says.

Zhou believes online services, such as photo uploading offered by many studios, allow migrant workers to stay in touch with their families and maintain a sense of identity.

Instant messaging is especially popular with migrant workers. Many of them log on to the service as soon as they get online, according to migrant worker Wang. She says her colleagues are very familiar with the service, and that she has been using it since she was in school.

"I prefer it because many of my colleagues use it, so it's easy for us to connect with each other," Wang says.

Still, Qiu says the Internet has not been enough to change the fate of migrant workers.

China is now home to some 230 million migrant workers and Qiu says it is common for them to work over 10 hours each day.

"Spare time is precious for them, and a weekend often means having just one day off," says Qiu.

"I really hope that local governments and plant managers will give their workers more significant opportunities for their time off, as it is important for them to loosen up from time to time," Qiu says.

Community help

Xiaoxiaocao, meaning "delicate grass" in Chinese, is a service for migrant workers based in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, that has provided film screenings, reading rooms and recruitment information for the city's migrant laborers since 2003.

The program was initiated by the migrant workers themselves and sponsored by Oxfam Hong Kong. The program currently has 60 registered members.

Wang Baoli, a 21-year-old former migrant worker, has been working for Xiaoxiaocao for one year. She used to work on an assembly line in a mobile phone factory in the coastal city of Xiamen, Fujian Province, where she earned a salary of 1,600 yuan per month.

"Although I only earn 2,000 yuan each month now, it's rewarding for me to help enrich the spare time of migrant workers like me," she says.

She has organized several singing competitions and guitar classes for migrant workers. "I feel great when I see happiness appearing on their faces," she says.

The cultural departments of several cities in Guangdong Province, such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai, have built more Internet cafes near factories in those cities to cater to migrant workers' growing desire to go online.

The provincial government has also asked cities to create websites for migrant workers that will give them information on cultural activities, public services, recruitment and recreation. The websites are designed to boost exchanges between migrant workers and the rest of society and promote their sense of belonging in the province's biggest cities.


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