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Special Unit to Fight for Migrant Workers

The central government has set up a special department to safeguard the rights of migrant workers, help them get training and ensure safe working conditions.

The aim of the department of migrant workers' affairs, under the newly formed Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, is to achieve social harmony.

It will help the workers get their wages in time, sign labor contracts with employers and get proper training, as well as work for their social security. Arranging for large-scale flow of laborers will be part of its job too.

"Our mission is to carry on the government's unremitting efforts to protect the legal rights of migrant workers," Wang Zhihong, director of the new department, said Monday.

The other major task would be to select the "best migrant workers" and encourage this not-so-well-educated army to integrate into the urban environment, said Wang, who was chosen on Friday to head the new department.

The new department is a "landmark" in the government's efforts to help the 150 million migrant workers earn a decent place in cities, experts said.

Liu Junsheng, a researcher with the labor-wage institute, affiliated to the ministry, said the move reflects the commitment of the leadership to bridge the widening urban-rural divide.

Since the 1990s, millions of farmers have left their home to work in factories, mines and on construction sites, especially in the economic powerhouses in eastern and southern China.

"And for long they have been treated unfairly," Liu said. "Even after working in cities for years, most of them don't enjoy an urban resident's status."

The government first worked out a strategy to integrate rural and urban development in 2003 to achieve social harmony. That was followed by an inter-ministerial network that the State Council, the country's cabinet, set up in 2006 to protect the rights and interests of migrant workers.

Duan Chengrong, a labor expert with the Renmin University of China, said the new department would help tackle the key problems of employment and social security facing the workers.

Migrant workers agree that their condition has improved over the past five years and that they are gradually being put under the national social security umbrella.

"But it is far from enough," said Xie Ying, a migrant coordinator from Bazhong City in Sichuan Province.

The new department should try to resolve the household registration (hukou) issue, Xie said. "The government should take quick action "

Bazhong has a population of 3.7 million but more than one million of them work as factory workers, waiters, domestic helps and garbage collectors in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Like most other cities, Beijing too offers temporary residence permits to migrant workers every year, but less than 10 from Xie's city can manage to get a permanent residence card.

"We are happy that the government is paying attention to workers' problem and we don't expect every migrant to become a Beijing resident but the hukou system should be made more flexible," she said.

Ensuring that workers get their wages on time and work in a safe environment should be the top priority of the new department, she said.

Xie came to Beijing in 2006, and most of the 300 complaints she has received from her hometown workers since then have been over payments or compensations for injuries.

Three migrant workers have been inducted into the country's top legislature, where they can voice their concerns.

(China Daily July 22, 2008)

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