China has announced new measures to improve conditions for workers - by banning discrimination against rural migrant laborers and publishing the first handbook on workers' rights. The moves come as China is facing unprecedented labor protests due to rapid market reforms of the communist centralized economy.
China's 100 million migrant workers from the countryside have long been second class citizens in the cities. Under the government's "household registration system," all Chinese are classified as being either urban or rural residents.
That means that most urban jobs are reserved for city residents, and rural migrants are not entitled to benefits such as medical insurance, education for their children, or even employment contracts. They perform the lowest-paid, lowest skill work, and often face prolonged delays in receiving wages, if they ever get paid at all.
On Thursday, the government outlined a plan in the China Daily newspaper to lift restrictions on migrant workers.
The Daily, quoting urban reform official, Yuan Chongfa, says new directives will open all urban jobs to rural migrants by prohibiting job discrimination based on residency, forcing employers to sign contracts with migrant workers, and police will be required to grant urban residence permits to those who find a job.
But Nicolas Becquelin, a Hong Kong researcher for the group, Human Rights in China, warns that local authorities are likely to resist the central government's new directive. "The public security bureau, for instance, which is in charge of managing the floating population and very much considers migrants a threat to social stability, is very reluctant to scrap this system and move toward greater freedom for migrant workers," he said.
Police routinely subject rural migrants to arbitrary harassment and detention because they lack the proper residence permits.
Meanwhile, China's only Communist Party-approved labor union released its first-ever handbook on rights of workers Thursday. Zhang Junjiu, the vice chairman of the All China Federation of Trade Unions, unveiled the blue book, published in both Chinese and English.
The rules aim to promote safe and fair workplace practices by eliminating sexual discrimination, child labor, and advising workers about their rights to negotiate.
The Communist Party government has been faced with unprecedented social and labor unrest and protests by workers, the party's original power base.
Millions of people have lost their industrial jobs as unprofitable state-owned industries have been closed due to reforms and foreign competition. The 900-million-strong agriculture sector will also face a major challenge as China liberalizes its markets under World Trade Organization rules.