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Migrant Workers Caught in the Web

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These former farmers may not have fancy phones or personal computers but they are as keen as anyone else to go online and communicate. Liu Xin of China Features reports

Nineteen-year-old migrant worker Xiao Zhao treks to a photo studio in southwestern Beijing, puts on his new jacket and spends 15 yuan (US$2.25) having his picture taken against a backdrop of London's Big Ben. He doesn't have a computer or camera, so this is the only way he can share pictures with his fellow villagers and workmates online, as the studio uploads the images onto blogs.

"It's impossible for me to travel abroad for financial reasons, so I chose Big Ben as the backdrop for my photo because I love it and it's a landmark in London, where my favorite soccer team Chelsea is based," he says.

"I have QQ (messenger service) and a blog," Xiao Zhao says, but he can't afford a computer. "We migrant workers usually have low-end mobile phones, which do not record video or have uploading functions."

The studio is in a rented, simply decorated room that has just a desktop and digital camera for equipment.

The studio owner, Shen Quanwei, says: "We have thousands of backgrounds for our clients to choose from."

In other major Chinese cities, these types of studios have become popular and are generally found in areas where migrants live or work.

Zhou Baohua, professor at the Journalism School of Fudan University, says uploading services were a sideline of photo studios for some time but have recently become a major part of their business.

"Migrant workers' demand for online communication has expanded the services of photo studios," Zhou says.

He is researching Internet use among migrant workers in the Yangtze River Delta. After interviewing 842 migrant workers who were born between the 1980s and 1990s, at 12 plants and construction sites in Shanghai and Suzhou, he found that around 75 percent habitually surf the Internet.

"Most of them have QQ accounts or a blog," he says.

Wang Wenting, 20, works at a medical warehouse in Shanghai and has a monthly income of about 2,000 yuan. She first started going online three years ago. After a 10-hour working day, she spends up to four hours surfing the Internet.

"It is much more interesting than window-shopping," Wang says. "I have few friends or relatives in the city, so I prefer to go online after work."

She says she likes playing games, watching movies, downloading songs, making friends and hunting for jobs on the Internet.

"A low income, heavy workload and isolated living environment are alienating (for migrant workers) when they pursue their big city dreams," Zhou comments.

Qiu Linchuan, associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, Chinese University of Hong Kong, is cooperating with Zhou in his research.

He says less than 20 percent of migrant workers have a personal computer, and it's not convenient to own one if they frequently move to new jobs.

Photo studio Internet services, therefore, provide a much-needed link with their families and friends, so they can retain their identity, Zhou says.

China has about 230 million migrant workers, and Qiu says it's important for them to have access to recreational facilities when they have time off.

"So, I appeal to local governments and plant managers to help workers enjoy their days off by using new technologies."

Xiao Xiao Cao ("Delicate Grass") is a migrant workers' facility based in Shenzhen that provides free services, such as a film and reading room, labor law dissemination and recruitment information.

It was initiated by migrant workers, sponsored by Oxfam Hong Kong and was established in 2003. It has almost 60 registered members.

Wang Baoli, 21, has been working for Xiao Xiao Cao for a year. She used to be a worker on the assembly line of a mobile phone manufacturing plant in Xiamen, Fujian province, earning 1,600 yuan a month.

"Although I only earn 2,000 yuan a month now, I can help fellow migrant workers enrich their lives when they have time off," Wang says.

She has organized several singing competitions, outings and guitar courses for migrant workers.

In addition, the cultural departments of cities in Guangdong province, such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai, have been establishing cybercafes near manufacturing plants.

The provincial government also called on cities to create websites tailored to migrant workers that offer cultural news, and recruitment and recreation information.

The websites are intended to boost communication between migrant workers and the rest of society, and promote a sense of belonging.

(China Daily December 22, 2010)

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