Uneasy life of China’s migrants

March 11, 2013

Shanghai, China

By Aly Song

Living in the metropolis of Shanghai for over 10 years, it makes sense to me that all the luxury malls, high-end goods and soaring skyscrapers are made by the hands of migrant workers. As a result, I pay extra attention to the migrant worker community.

Shortly after the Spring Festival holiday, I had a chance to photograph dozens of migrant workers traveling from home to job interviews at an underwear factory in Shanghai. They were all recruited by an employment agency, a popular business nowadays especially on the coastal area where the labor shortage situation has reached a worsening level.

The interview was the simplest I had ever seen, the only requirement by the factory was “good health”, followed by several questions which altogether lasted about 5 minutes. Afterwards the workers were divided into two groups – experienced and “whiteboard” (without any work experience). The experienced workers were asked to start working right away, while the whiteboard workers needed to attend a training course – by observing the production line and following a veteran for one or two days.

There were two “whiteboard” girls that caught my eye during the assignment. The two shy girls in their 20s were both ethnic Yi minorities from a village in southwestern China’s Yunnan province. You could almost see in their eyes that everything was so new and strange to them. They wouldn’t give me their names, but they told me that it was their first time leaving home for work, and it brought them to a city over 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) away.

Insecurity and uncertainty have long been the key words for Chinese migrant workers, mainly because they left their homes for a strange environment with few friends and usually zero social insurance. A recent hot topic at the ongoing annual National People’s Congress (NPC) was the household registration system (or hukou regime) reform. Through this, migrant workers could finally benefit from government funds on medical services and education for their children, which are given free to urban dwellers. It would, however, take some time for the new policy to carried out. So, what’s the situation now?

Last week, I went to an area near the Shanghai Outer Ring Expressway, the edge of the city center, to look for some pictures to match property stories. A small road with piles of household garbage on both sides caught my attention. Further down the road, after walking past several blocks of old and shabby buildings, I found myself standing in front of dozens of shipping containers, piled up one after another.

At first I thought it must be a post-modern art project, but when I got closer, I saw people inside the containers, and there were beds, tables and fridges.

The containers were rented to migrant workers as dwellings for 500 yuan (80 USD) per month. About 20 people, most of whom make a living by collecting recyclable waste, have lived here for more than two years. A woman complained to me that there was neither running water nor toilets in the containers. It was hot like a fireplace in the summer and cold like an ice cave in the winter, although the rent was quite acceptable.

While I was wandering around the area trying to shoot some more frames with the dusk light, the woman’s husband came back from work on an electric tricycle. After realizing that I was a journalist, he stopped me from taking pictures and threatened me to leave or he would call the police. I didn’t know the specific reason why he wanted me out, but I did understand that their insecurity sometimes prevented them from getting into trouble.

On my way out, the sky turned darker and an elderly woman started to cook outside her container. I sincerely hope that their lives will be free of uncertainty and insecurity soon. The government creating a beneficial policy would be a good start, but people treating them fairly is the key.

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/