The Orange Brigade
Hey guys, as you may have noticed, Spartan Wanderer is not where it used to be. As I go full digital nomad, I'm merging the blog with my personal site. This whole deal is partly why there's been so much time between posts. So, this week I'm going to leave you guys with a post I forgot to post this past winter. China's class divide is rapidly becoming an unbridgeable chasm, and this piece is on the plight of the lowest of the low.
There was a chill in the air this morning. It’s getting closer to the annual deep freeze of northeastern China. The -35°C winter will be waiting outside of my apartment complex like a wall of tiny little knives. Soon, the Daqing expats will hole up inside, binging on the latest Netflix phenomenon and/or playing Settlers of Catan while taking occasional nips of baijiu to stay warm.
And with the winter baijiu comes the inevitable hangover, awakened into being by that unmistakable SHICK! SHICK! sound from outside that normally begins as early as 5 in the morning. That sound is China’s unsung heroes literally scraping ice off the street with shovels, one of several unsavory jobs that no one else will do other than this floating segment of the population. I’m talking about China’s migrant workers.
China’s crazy mass-urbanization
Call China’s government what you want - oppressive, brutal, self-serving - but they have orchestrated somewhat of an economic miracle since opening up in the 80s. Sure, they’re running low on magic at the moment as the yuan seizes out like an epileptic at a rave, but it was an impressive feat nonetheless. Part of keeping that miracle afloat, or so the Party thinks, is moving China’s entire rural population to the city. They’re so confident in this idea that entire cities have been built before there were any people to fill them with.
Between 1979 and 2009, China’s urban population has skyrocketed by at least 440 million people. This rural-urban migration is the largest in human history and has also resulted in one of the largest migrant populations in the world. Some of these workers have posted up in growing cities near their hometowns or sometimes in an adjacent province with a better standard of living. Others were simply forced to relocate as part of China’s urbanization plan.
It’s a dirty job
No matter if a given migrant worker that I see on the street decided to come to Daqing by choice or not, they do some of the shittiest jobs in the city, get the shittiest pay and none of the appreciation they deserve. On a daily basis, here are some of the jobs I see the orange-clad migrants doing:
Scraping ice off the street
Sweeping rain into Daqing’s shitty, useless drainage system
Digging around in trash for recyclables (China has next to no system in place and recycling bins are ignored by the general population anyway)
Burning trash in dumpsters when they’re too full (without masks or any other protection)
Sweeping rubbish off the sides of major, dangerous highways
Scavenging for scrap metal
Pruning trees in 40°C heat
Random, usually dangerous unskilled construction odd-jobs
Some of these shitty jobs wouldn’t be so shitty if they were actually paid well for them, but with increased urbanization and the rise of China’s middle class, the migrants have been a convenient cog to keep the Chinese dream going - a cheap supply of unskilled labor for necessary jobs that nobody else wants to do. Just how cheap? Although there is a minimum wage in China, many employers ignore these laws (laws are basically made to be ignored in China). In 2006, about 30% of migrant workers were making between 300 and 500 RMB per month. That’s an average of $62/mo in urban areas, where the cost of living is basically increasing by the minute. Fucking insane.
You can work but you can’t stay
On top of doing the worst jobs for barely anything at all, the migrants are seeing none of the promises that lead them to these cities come to fruition. The Chinese government has supported migration as a source of labor for China’s transformation into an urban-based economy. Often, there are several incentives to join the great migration - social security, health insurance and a housing allowance to name a few. It could be a sweet deal if any of these promises were actually fulfilled, but the migrants’ firm position as one of the most marginalized groups in China is evidence that this is clearly not the case.
It’s one thing to establish labor rights with legislation, but it’s another thing entirely to not lift a finger when employers of the migrants almost universally turn a blind eye to said laws. Which happens all the time, mostly due to general apathy and/or bribery. But perhaps the biggest sticking point is China’s hukou system, which binds people’s access to government services to their residential status. A staggering amount of migrants working in urban areas hold a rural hukou, which means they don’t get to access stuff like proper medical care or education provided in the cities they work in. Tens of millions of children have been left to relatives in the countryside while their parents try to earn a better life for them in the city.
Inevitable hope…or not
Thanks to social media, the rest of China is not completely ignorant to the plight of the migrant workers. In fact, there have even been several strikes for workers’ rights in several cities, most having been brutally repressed. But the fact of the matter is, the CPC still claims to be a party for the working class. It has to confront this early on, before it’s revealed to be the plutocracy that it actually is. In some ways, the Party realizes this. Some very minor reforms are happening with the houku system, such as granting urban houkus in exchange for social welfare contributions. But as long as the larger income gap exists, as well as soft discrimination from residents who possess an urban houku, perhaps the only reasonable reform is eliminating the houku system altogether.