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Rights Group Calls on China to End Discrimination Against Migrant Workers

The human rights organization Amnesty International has called on China to drop its household registration system, saying it discriminates against migrant workers who are becoming China's "urban underclass." Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

China's household registration system, known as "hukou," requires migrant laborers to register for temporary status with the local police when they come to a city for work.

In a report issued Thursday, Amnesty International says most migrants find it difficult or impossible to register. That leaves them undocumented and subject to exploitation.

Amnesty says even those with temporary residency status are not given the same subsidized housing, education and medical care as city dwellers. Instead, migrants are forced to live in overcrowded and unhealthy conditions, often leaving their children alone in home villages.

Corinna-Barbara Francis, the China researcher for Amnesty International and an author of the report, says the "hukou" system means migrant workers are treated like second-class citizens.

"This goes against international human rights law and it's not a fair system," she said. "These are people who are really fueling China's economic development, and yet they have been treated badly. And, we'd like to see that change."

Francis says officials are wary of liberalizing the hukou system because they do not want to pay the costs of social benefits for new migrants, and city dwellers do not want to compete with migrants for subsidies on education and housing.

China's ruling communist party established the household registration system in the 1950s, as part of efforts to control nearly every aspect of people's lives. The authorities say they are considering reforming the rules on migrants but there are no plans to get rid of the household registration and no timetable for reform has been announced.

Migrants are often abused by employers who can withhold pay to prevent workers from changing jobs, or penalize them for failure to meet quotas. Amnesty says these illegal practices have kept down labor costs in China.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang denied promoting economic growth at the expense of human rights.

"It is undeniable that in some places and some departments in China, rural workers' legal rights are violated," he said. "The Chinese government attaches great importance to this. Every level of China's government is taking active measures to protect the legal rights and interests of rural workers."

There are as many as 200 million migrant workers in China's cities building the skyscrapers and modern apartment complexes that showcase the country's rapid economic growth.