Pallavi Aiyar

China's migrant workers have been crucial to sustaining the economic boom. Now attention is turning to their plight.

"WHAT WOULD you like to drink," asked the apple-cheeked girl in carefully enunciated English. Appreciative giggles filled the room in response to her effort and she smiled shyly in acknowledgement, handing out make-belief drinks to the make-belief restaurant patrons.

This scene was being played out in a classroom in a Beijing school called BN Vocational, where 20-odd students were busy learning the basic skills required by the hospitality industry. A scene that would have been less-than-remarkable were it not for the fact that all the students were children of the Chinese capital's most disadvantaged section of society migrant workers.

Visitors to China's showcase cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are usually awestruck at the shiny surfaces of their skyscrapers and the smooth breadth of their expressways. But much of the razzle and dazzle of these cities is in fact owed to the back-breaking labour of legions of migrant workers; an underclass of Chinese society that has been crucial to the country's economic boom but is at the same time testament to the visceral inequalities that have emerged.

By official accounts there are currently between 150 million and 200 million migrant workers in China, the vast majority from the relatively impoverished countryside, working at construction sites and sweat-shops in cities along China's booming seaboard. They perform a host of other menial jobs considered too dirty or dangerous by city folk.

Easily identifiable by their blackened teeth, ill-fitting clothes, mannerisms and rural accents, they are a world apart from their urbane and wealthy city compatriots. For decades, migrant workers were systematically denied access to basic public services such as health care and education, and were subject to harassment and even forcible deportation by police, almost as if they were illegal foreigners in the cities they moved to. The reason was their legal status as holders of rural as opposed to urban residence permits or internal visas called "hukous." China's hukou system was first instituted in the early 1960s. Until the start of economic reform in the late 1970s, rural migrants were not allowed to move to or work in cities at all.

After the country started on the path to economic liberalisation, the Chinese authorities had to balance competing desires for maintaining and reforming the hukou system. On the one hand, economic growth was predicated on a mobile labour force, while, on the other, ensuring that the infrastructure of cities was not overwhelmed required continuing restrictions on this mobility.

Eventually market considerations won out and in recent years there has been a considerable easing of hukou requirements. Thus, Beijing alone is currently estimated to have a migrant labour force of some four million. China is, in fact, currently experiencing an across-the-board urbanisation process that is historically unparalleled in terms of both speed and scale. According to official data, China's urbanisation rate rose from 17.9 per cent to 41.8 per cent between1978 and 2004, while it's urban population increased from 170 million to 540 million.

Educating the children

But this easing of restrictions on the internal movement of people has meant that Chinese cities are increasingly struggling with the consequences that this wave of new migrants has for urban planning, security, and social integration. One of the greatest challenges of all is to ensure an equitable education for the children of the newcomers. Estimates of the number of migrant children in Beijing vary between 300,000 and 500,000. Until 1998, the capital did not allow public schools to admit non-residents at all. Since then migrant children have been permitted to enter the city's public school system. Around two-thirds of them, in fact, attend public schools. However, many of these schools charge a hefty extra fee to enrol migrants, usually $1000-$3000, which is beyond the means of many migrant families and an intolerably heavy financial burden on others.

Although the government has now declared illegal the charging of extra fees for migrant children, it is a practice experts say still continues. Already stretched for resources, most schools simply do not have the budget or capacity to accommodate the extra migrants without these supplementary fees.

For children unable to find or afford a place at a public school, the only other option is to attend one of the hundreds of often illegal, privately run migrant schools of which there are over 200 in Beijing alone. Standards fall far short of that in public schools but they do provide at least a basic grounding in reading and writing.

The real problem these days starts at the high school level, which is not subsidised by the government and is thus prohibitively expensive for the average migrant worker family. The vast majority of migrant children consequently never study beyond middle school, which, in turn, impacts their future employment prospects, keeping them locked down in a spiral of inadequate education and menial jobs.

"But even before the high school level there are still issues," says Yao Li, the Chairperson of BN Vocational School, Beijing's first privately run and funded school specifically aimed at imparting practical skills to migrant children of high-school age. These problems, she says, are not so much of access as those of attitude. Thus while migrant kids may no longer physically be excluded from the public school system, they face more subtle psychological challenges. "These [migrant] kids look different. Their families are poor and have a different lifestyle to those of city children. So the parents of city kids don't want them to mix with migrants because they think they are dirty and might contaminate them," she explains.

Yao Li started up BN Vocational in late 2005, after she quit her job as general manager of a real estate company. The school takes in around 80 teenagers a year and teaches them courses in electronics, plumbing, computers, and hospitality services. The students are given this training totally free of charge and at the end of the two-year training period, which includes an internship, are guaranteed jobs.

To be selected, the students must finish middle school and then pass a special entrance examination. Most of those chosen come from migrant families where per capita income is less than 300 yuan ($38) a month. The average per capita income for Beijing residents in 2006 was well over $200.

One of the school's top performers is a 17-year-old girl from China's northeast Shandong province, called Wang Na. For her, the chance to study at BN Vocational represents an opportunity to begin climbing up a social ladder that in contemporary China has becoming increasingly steeper and harder to scale. "If after graduating I can get a good job and maybe save enough to later go to university, everything will be different. People will no longer look down on me because I will be the same as them," she says.

BN Vocational is funded by a slew of multinational and domestic corporations. Dell has donated computers, Motorola the equipment for the electronics laboratory. Real estate developers, banks and chemical corporations are amongst the long list of other private sector donors to the school. Additional funds are raised for the project through the organising of gala charity dinners at five-star hotels and luxury golf competitions where wealthy Chinese spend as much in a day as the families of the students see in a year.

The attention BN Vocational has garnered may push the government to expand on this vocational education model. Yao Li says several officials from the municipal education department have visited the school since it started and some have expressed an interest in setting up more schools along the same lines.

With growing inequality becoming the primary source of social tension in China, the plight of migrant workers is in general receiving more attention from the central government. Thus in early April the State Council announced that it was considering setting up a centralised department to oversee and coordinate the growing numbers of migrants across the country. Pilot projects in several provinces where the distinction between urban and rural hukous has been completely scrapped are also ongoing. But fundamental to any policy or structural shift aimed at addressing issues of social justice is education. How China meets this challenge will be fundamental to shaping the country's future.