Why don't rural migrant workers live in government-subsidised low-rent apartments?

Since 2003, the State Council has issued a series of policies on protection of migrant workers' rights. While these policies require improving migrant workers' employment situation, they also require local governments to improve migrant workers' living conditions by various channels. In recent years, some city governments invested to build apartments for these workers.

These apartments not only provide necessities such as beds, tables and chairs, and cupboards, but also other supplementary facilities, including canteens, reading rooms, audio-visual rooms, and public toilets. The rents of these apartments are low. If a migrant worker shared an apartment with several other workers, he or she would only need to pay a rent of 30-50 yuan each month. If he or she rented an apartment on his or her own, the monthly rent would only be 120-170 yuan. In large cities in China, the monthly rent of such apartments is usually about 1,000 to 2000 yuan. When most migrant workers receive a monthly salary of about 800 to 1000 yuan, these prices should be acceptable to them. When these apartments were built, they immediately became a hot topic for local media, some of which even called it a "big present" given to migrant workers by the government.

In early September, the People's Daily and Xinhua Daily Telegraph reported about the situations of two "migrant workers' apartments". According to the reports, the Changsha city government in Hunan Province invested to build 618 "migrant workers' apartments" in January 2005, but only 26 apartments have since been rented out. In late 2004, 4,800 apartments were built for migrant workers in Tianjin by the Tianjin Port Development Holdings Ltd, but up to now it attracted only 1,800 rural migrant workers.

It remains a question why migrant workers are not attracted to these cheap and well-equipped apartments while the living costs in large cities are relatively high for them. According to the analysis of the mainland newspapers, it may be because of the following reasons.

First, the apartments are situated on one area in the city only, while migrant workers have to work in different districts in the city. It would thus cost the migrant workers higher transport fees and more time to travel to work. Many migrant workers would rather choose to live near their workplaces.

Second, migrant workers in the cities mainly work in the construction and renovation industries. In these industries, workers usually live in sheds provided by their employers. Although the living conditions of the sheds are poor, many migrant workers, who earn meagre wages, still prefer to live there to renting flats outside.

Third, there are no kitchens in the apartments for migrant workers. The food provided at the canteens of these apartments cannot satisfy the tastes of migrant workers who come from difference provinces.

Fourth, some migrant workers take their family with them to the city and it is inconvenient for them to share an apartment with other people.

Finally, migrant workers who work in catering, service and processing industries are given food and accommodation by their employers and usually they are not allowed to live outside.

The newspapers' analysis accurately points out migrant workers' view these apartments. But if we analyse the central government's policies on protection of migrant workers' rights, we can see the deeper reasons for such phenomenon.

First, when the central government and various levels of local governments emphasizes on protecting the rights and improving the working conditions of migrant workers, the government always positions itself as the "saviour" and adopts various policies in the way as if it is giving a "present" to the workers. By using an administrative mindset to respond to migrant workers' demands, the government sets out a series of glamorous but impractical policies from which the migrant workers receive no benefit.

Moreover, these impractical policies inevitably make people doubt the government's motive to adopt these measures. After a coal mine accident happens, local government can use the state media to package it as a scene of rescue officers saving injured miners. Therefore, officials can very likely use the "migrant workers' apartments" as a window dressing programme – the one that can help them gain a "merit" in their political career.

Finally, in China, where sweatshops are rampant in the whole country, a slogan-type of policy and a few apartment buildings which can accommodate nearly a thousand migrant workers simply cannot improve the poor working conditions of migrant workers. In fact, what the workers need are rising the wage level, reducing working hours, improving workplace conditions and ensuring payment of wage arrears.

We still need to look at the issue of protecting migrant workers' rights from the angle of organising workers. In order to effectively protect migrant workers' rights, the government first needs to lift the restriction on voluntary union organisation. Then, workers can have their own representatives who can help them fight for their rights through collective bargaining. In a market economy, workers' rights won't be effectively protected simply by relying on the government's "patronizing" policies.

Additional information:

On 27 March, the State Council issued an opinion paper on solving problems regarding migrant workers. It requires local governments to improve migrant workers' living conditions by various channels. It also requires relevant government departments to improve monitoring and ensure that migrant workers' living places are up to health and safety standards. Enterprises that employ more rural migrant workers can build staff dormitories within the premises of their enterprises. Enterprises in industrial and development zones can build centralised staff dormitories together to better utilize the land. Local governments should strengthen its policies on planning, development and management in areas where many migrant workers live. They should also include the living problems of migrant workers in their housing development plans. If enterprises in cities and counties that employ migrant workers can afford it, they should provide the workers with urban housing provident fund, the premiums of which should be paid both by the employers and the workers. The migrant workers can use the money to buy or rent their own flats.

17 October 2006

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