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January 2012, Volume 19, Number 1

China: Migrants

China is planning to update labor migration regulations to make it easier for foreign professionals to enter and to impose new penalties on unauthorized foreign migrants and their Chinese employers. There are complaints about Vietnamese workers seeking higher wages in southern China and North Koreans working as domestics in northeastern China.

China has developed a manufacturing sector in coastal areas that relies on migrants from inland provinces to assemble manufactured goods for export to the US and other countries. However, low wages and rising prices (inflation is officially 5.5 percent), combined with production quotas that inexperienced workers find it hard to meet, prompted a series of strikes in 2011 in Guangdong, where 20 million migrants produce a third of China's exports.

Many of the strikes are defensive, meaning that workers are protesting cost-cutting measures. Wages in coastal factories almost doubled between 2005 and 2011, and minimum wages, which are set by province, rose an average of over 20 percent between 2010 and 2011. Shenzhen in Guangdong province plans to raise its minimum wage to 1,500 yuan ($238) a month in February 2012, making it the highest minimum wage in China.

With margins squeezed, some manufacturers of low-wage goods such as shoes and garments have moved factories inland, where wages are lower but transport costs to Chinese ports are higher. Others have threatened to close factories if their employees do not agree to higher production quotas or wage increases that lag inflation.

Taiwan's Foxconn Technology Group (Hon Hai), China's largest exporter, in August 2010 opened a factory in Zhengzhou, the capital of central Henan province. Hon Hai said it would open more factories in inland provinces to take advantage of lower wages.

Many of the construction workers employed in Chinese cities are also internal migrants. However, few have contracts with their employers, which makes it hard to resolve disputes over wages that arise each winter when migrants often return to their villages of origin for Chinese New Year celebrations. Many of the subcontractors who hire migrants do not get paid regularly, and they often give their employees a living allowance for housing and food and promise full wage payments when the project is completed.

A survey of construction workers in Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai and Shenzhen found that three-fourths did not have contracts with their employers, most of whom were subcontractors on large projects. Laborer wages average $20 a day for 10-hour days.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), China's authorized union movement, reported 258 million members at the end of 2011 employed by 5.2 million firms. About 36 percent of these union members are rural-urban migrants.

The world's largest human migration occurs with the Chinese New Year known as Spring Festival, which is January 23, 2012. Rural-urban migrants often return to their villages by rail; in 2011, China's rail authority reported handling 2.5 billion passengers during the ten-day holiday. Before migrants return to their villages, they often try to collect back wages from their employers, leading to protests. Some do not return to factories after the Spring Festival, prompting complaints of labor shortages.

Villagers in 13,000-resident Wukan protested sales of their land to developers in Fall 2011, highlighting the problems of governance in the 625,000 Chinese villages. Villages are run by elected committees, but elections can be manipulated so that those in power remain in power.

Hong Kong. Hong Kong's High Court in September 2011 ruled that foreign domestic workers may apply for permanent residence status after seven continuous years of residence, extending the same residence requirement to domestic workers that applies to other foreigners. The suit was filed by Filipina Evangeline Banao Vallejos, whose application for permanent residence was rejected even though she had lived in Hong Kong since 1986.

Hong Kong's government plans to appeal the decision to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in Beijing. In 1999, after the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal ruled that children with at least one permanent resident parent were eligible for permanent residence in Hong Kong, the Standing Committee overturned the decision. Up to half of the 292,000 foreign domestic workers could be eligible to become permanent residents under the seven-year rule.

Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong demonstrated on December 18, 2011 to protest low wages in Hong Kong. They say that Indonesian domestic workers must pay HK$2,100 ($270) per month for their first seven months in Hong Kong to their Indonesian recruiter, and called for the minimum wage in Hong Kong to be raised from HK$3,500 ($450) to HK$4,000 a month.

Taiwan. The number of migrant workers reached a record 421,000 in October 2011, including 224,000 in manufacturing and 197,000 in care giving. About 7.3 million Taiwanese were employed in private-sector firms in Fall 2011.

Foreign domestic workers and their supporters marched in Taipei December 11, 2011 to call for laws requiring employers to pay them a minimum wage and give them regular days off. Many of the almost 200,000 foreign domestic workers arrive in Taiwan in debt due to recruitment costs in their countries of origin, and feel compelled to obey employers in order to keep their jobs.

Loa Iok-sin, "Protesters urge better protections for migrant workers," Taipei Times, December 12, 2011.