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Diverse services needed to protect rights of migrant workers

YE PENGFEI | 2020-10-21
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Migrant workers fill out forms for free health checks to be conducted by a community-level health service center in Chongqing Municipality. Building a diverse, comprehensive right protection and service system is crucial to facilitating the all-around development of migrant workers. Photo: XINHUA


Over more than four decades since the reform and opening up, migrant workers have made significant contributions to China’s economic prosperity and social development. However, due to urban-rural divisions and uneven resource allocation, the migrant population faces contradictions between their need for a better life and imbalanced, inadequate development. This tension highlights the urgent need to serve and protect their rights and interests. 
 
To facilitate the all-around development of migrant workers, crucial tasks include: building a diverse, comprehensive right protection and service system, fostering the integration and collaboration of multiple forces, and resolving outstanding issues in the field of labor relations. These tasks are essential to the implementation of people-centered development philosophies and the promotion of effective social governance. 
 
Major problems
Against the backdrop of economic restructuring, industrial transformations and upgrades, the accelerated development of new businesses, like digital and platform economies, greatly impacts the employment structure and quality of migrant work.
 
Yet employment remains a problem. As a floating population in urban societies, migrant workers rely heavily on their jobs, which are also where their fundamental interests lie. The much-discussed problem of temporary employment has become more conspicuous in the new economic normal. Some migrant workers are only earning daily wages. 
 
When it comes to employment channels, recommendations by fellow townsmen and friends are principal, leaving migrants with very limited career choices. Generally, the jobs they take are confined to the low end of the labor market, making upward mobility in their occupational status highly difficult. 
 
As industrial upgrades continue to deepen, the structural contradictions inherent in employment are increasingly evident, manifesting in the mismatch between migrant workers and their jobs and the growing difficulty in finding employment. 
 
Another problem is how to safeguard migrant workers’ rights and interests. Previous studies have elaborated upon such issues as migrant workers’ income, labor intensity, working hours, and occupational environments, but many of the problems are still acute. Compared to the hard work performed, migrant workers are not yet paid equivalently. 
 
Monitoring data from the National Bureau of Statistics shows that only a small proportion of migrant workers have signed labor contracts and participated in social insurance. Particularly in the new business model of platform economies, a host of migrants have engaged in new occupations like take-out deliverymen and ride-hailing drivers. The problems of job stability, labor intensity, and safety risks are noteworthy. 
 
Social integration is likewise a problem. To many migrant workers, rural life is in the past, but cities are not places where they can settle down. Their occupational status is low, and it is difficult for them to buy houses and stay permanently in the cities where they work. They have limited access to public services. Most importantly, new generations of migrant workers face obstacles which hinder them from sending their children to kindergartens and primary schools, especially in large and medium-sized cities. 
 
From the perspective of behavioral adaptation, social behaviors of migrant workers have exhibited involution. They have failed to build extensive social networks in cities or participate fully in community activities. Although they have felt less excluded in recent years, they lack a sense of urban identity. 
 
Basic structure of service system
The above problems result from the interweaving of numerous factors like the current socioeconomic development model, administrative systems and social forces. The factors constitute a universal structural state for migrant workers. These difficulties are far more diverse, complicated, and restrictive than migrant workers can handle individually. 
 
To address the structural problems, migrants’ subjectivity and initiative are indispensable, but organized, socialized, and specialized forces are also essential to construct a comprehensive system that supports individuals and can achieve synergic effects. 
 
First, diverse forces should participate in the cause. There has been a growing emphasis on the leadership role of Party committees in social governance models based on collaboration, participation, and common interests. The Party and government can never be absent from the work of right protection and service provision for migrant workers. The leadership role of Party committees should be strengthened and the government should practically assume related responsibilities. 
 
Meanwhile, it is necessary to encourage and support various social forces to engage and enhance the roles of institutions like trade unions, Communist Youth League organizations and women’s federations, enterprises, social organizations, and migrant workers themselves. 
 
Second, the content of right protections and pertinent services should be comprehensive enough to meet the diverse needs of migrant workers in urban society. Labor economic rights and interests cover employment security, labor incomes, social insurance and labor safety, while societal rights regarding their survival and development involve social integration, occupational development, residence, children’s education, and skill improvement. These problems and demands are not in an atomized discrete state, but a closely knitted network, calling for holistic solutions to connect service content and projects. 
 
Also, the models of right protection and service provision should be diverse. Providing services for migrant workers should not be restricted to specific problems, contradictions or needs. Considerations should be given to the underlying conceptual and institutional factors. 
 
Right protection and service provision have two levels, each of which requires several actions. Macroscopic policy advocacy and institutional design are on the first level, aiming to compensate for migrant workers’ damaged rights and interests and the lack of services at the source. The government shoulders heavy responsibilities in legislation and policy making, while public and social organizations can serve as a major force for policy advocacy. 
 
On the micro level, right protection and related social work and services for certain events should focus on solving concrete problems and difficulties facing migrants. Building the social governance community as proposed by the central government, and the team of social workers planned by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), have both provided clear guidance for social organizations and social work involved in right protection and service provision for migrant workers. Among microscopic methods, attention should be paid to education and empowerment in order to foster migrant workers’ autonomy. 
 
Organizational integration 
In light of policy discourse, encouraging and supporting social forces to take part in right protection and service provision for migrant workers conforms to the growing trend of social governance innovation. In the diverse, comprehensive system, on the premise of Party committees’ leadership and government accountability, enhancing mutual trust and collaboration between different participating organizations is vital to effective social governance and synergy. 
 
First, the Party committee and government should intensify their regulatory, guiding, and supportive work. However, there are boundaries to the functions performed by Party and government organs. In the domain of right protection and service provision for migrant workers, social organizations can be assigned to provide social services if appropriate. 
 
In terms of existing problems, such as difficulties many organizations face when registering in civil departments, and a lack of actions and resources, the government can create more favorable conditions to help legalize their identity and actions, playing the core role of political guidance and service regulation through institutional, regulatory, and resource support. 
 
As junction organizations, trade unions can lead in organizational integration. Politically defined as a bridge and bond between the Party and workers and an important social pillar of state power, trade unions are not only action subjects to directly serve migrant workers, but are also adequate to mobilize and integrate other social organizations. They should open their minds and cooperate with other social organizations that serve workers to build a synergic service community. 
 
Social organizations should fully exert their ability to link resources and provide professional services. Trade unions are sometimes too institutionalized and administrative to maintain close ties with migrant workers, while social organizations committed to serving migrant workers are able to link government and trade union resources to migrant workers by undertaking commissioned projects, going the last mile to serve workers. 
 
With the support of the government and trade unions, social organizations can train migrant workers and aid them in collectively negotiating with enterprises, thus contributing to a beneficial self-regulatory social system through resource integration and professional service provision. 
 
Ye Pengfei is an associate professor from the Trade Union School at China University of Labor Relations. 
Edited by CHEN MIRONG