The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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China’s May Day mantra: Go shopping

Beijing, June 21: Not strikes or demonstrations or even solidarity meetings. This May Day, the message in China was: “Workers of the world unite ' and go shopping.”

If that seems a bit of a surprise as a May Day message, the stage was set last year. On May Day last year, China set a new record for a communist party anywhere in the world. It included, for the first time, successful businessmen in its list of May Day “heroes”.

This time, the May Day special of the official newspaper, China Daily, advised workers to relax and go shopping. And, the workers seem to take the advice seriously. An online poll by showed that 80 per cent of the respondents wanted to celebrate May Day by shopping.

Prakash Karat and his men in the CPM may still try to checkmate the Manmohan Singh government’s attempts to open the retail sector to foreign direct investment. But China not only wants more and more of FDI in retail, it also assures the investors that the workers are ready to spend.

Consumerism is seen in today’s China as the lifeline of its economy. The Indian communists’ harangues against consumerism would make little sense in communist China. Here, it is a great new rush for the goods necessary for a good life.

Urbanisation on a massive scale is one of the thrusts of China’s current modernisation programme. At the party congress in 2002, in which Hu Jintao succeeded Jiang Zemin as the general secretary of the Chinese communist Party, it was decided that 50 per cent of China’s population would live in cities by 2020. Hence, the long march of migrant workers from rural to urban areas.

But there is a flip side to this year’s May Day message. It must have sounded bitter to hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. They labour cheap to build China’s steel and glass cityscapes, suburban sprawls, the unending series of flyovers and highways and turn sleepy, little villages into new towns.

Yet, these migrant workers suffer the worst in today’s China. Working 11 to 12 hours a day in extremely poor conditions, they have virtually none of the rights that May Day signifies. Worse, their wages are often unpaid for months.

According to official estimates quoted in the official Beijing Review recently, employers owed migrant workers a total of $12 billion in wages.

The plight of China’s migrant workers hit the headlines in a dramatic fashion last year. At the centre of the story was Xiong Deming, a 42-year-old woman pig farmer of Sichuan.

Xiong was feeding her pigs when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made an unscheduled stop near her home in Yunyang county during his inspection of the Three Gorges Dam.

Xiong confronted Wen with her story. Her husband worked for a local contractor of a government construction project. His unpaid wages amounted to $273, equivalent to more than a year’s income of the family. Her husband was paid in full the same evening.

Her good luck was an exceptional story, which was why it hit newspaper headlines. For most migrant workers, life seems to be nasty, brutish and cheap.

Unnerved by the growing exposures of the migrant workers’ fate, the government started some damage-control exercises late last year. Some cities now have made it mandatory for companies to set up special wage funds before starting construction projects.

Last December, Beijing announced a 25 per cent penalty for unpaid wages to migrant workers. According to official estimates, this led to the clearing up of 90 per cent of the $885 million in unpaid wages in the Beijing municipal area since 2003.

In far-flung provinces and counties, though, the migrant labour has little to cheer about on a May Day, let alone go for shopping.

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