During Games, a Forced Vacation for Beijing's Migrant Workers

Zhang Yongjun, 36, left, and Zou Xianping, 39, are migrant workers whose construction projects were shut down for the Olympics.
Zhang Yongjun, 36, left, and Zou Xianping, 39, are migrant workers whose construction projects were shut down for the Olympics. (By Liu Songjie For The Washingon Post)
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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 21, 2008

BOLIN, China, Aug. 20 -- The glittering new buildings that China has so proudly displayed during the Beijing Olympics were largely the work of men like Zou Xianping. Zou, 39, left this little village in 2006 to weld steel for $280 a month in the high-rises going up along the capital's fashionable Avenue of Eternal Peace, doing his bit in a $40 billion pre-Olympic construction splurge.

But while Beijing is staging its Games and showing off its skyline, Zou has returned here to Sichuan province, miles from the splendor he helped create. He and nearly a million other construction workers were pushed from the city by a Chinese government eager to put on its best face for the celebrations. With their plastic hard hats and sun-burnished skin, the migrant laborers and their construction-site bivouacs did not fit with the image of a modern city that China's leaders wanted to project.

Concerns about national image have driven a host of changes in Beijing during the Olympic Games. More than a million cars were banned from the streets to reduce traffic and improve air quality. Trucks were forbidden in the city center. Even weather was manipulated to bring on rain when it was needed to wash away pollution -- or prevent it when the Opening Ceremony was held.

Migrant workers were most affected by the decision to halt construction where it stood July 20. The Beijing municipal government said suspensions in some parts of town were intended to reduce pollution and noted that, without delivery trucks, there was no way construction work could continue in any case. But critics said a good part of the decision was based on a desire to keep Olympic visitors from encountering the migrant workers, whose tattered appearance and primitive, prefab dorms did not fit with China's theme of economic progress.

As a result, when foreigners at the popular Silk Alley market look across the Avenue of Eternal Peace, they see a building with an unfinished fa├žade, along with the deserted Taiyuan Building, Zou's glass-and-steel workplace. Those who go to admire the nearby China Central Television tower, unfinished but already stunning with its twisted shape, run no risk of running into the usual crowds of grimy construction workers with farmhand manners.

Suddenly without a livelihood, many of the construction workers retreated to suburban towns to share the rent on dormitory-like rooms until their work can resume after the Paralympic Games. But many more boarded trains and spread out to the countless villages such as Bolin, 50 miles north of Chengdu, where their families and farms were there to welcome them during the forced two-month vacation.

And so it was that Zou was lying back on his bed late Wednesday morning, watching Olympic swimming on television. Until late September, he said, he will be staying here at the family farmhouse, enjoying time with his parents and his son, Zhenhua, a 15-year-old student at a nearby middle school who ordinarily is entrusted to the care of his grandparents.

"Of course I watch the Games," Zou told a visitor. "Our country is hosting the Olympics. How could I not watch it? I watch all the matches."

Zou said the work suspension back in Beijing was an unwelcome break in the family revenue stream but a price he was willing to pay for China's role as Olympic host. "Of course it's worth it," he declared.

The willingness to sacrifice for China's role as Olympic host, encouraged by fervent propaganda on state-run China Central Television, has also been eased by financial help from the government. Residents of Bolin, which lies in the area stricken by May's earthquake, were receiving about $1.40 a day and food assistance until August, when the payments were lowered to $28 a month until the end of the year.

In addition, Zou said, his boss is a fellow Sichuan native and made sure that the laid-off workers were paid in full before heading home. Aroused by reports of construction companies that failed to pay workers their due, the government has cracked down in recent months, with the result that most of those who lost their jobs in July seem to have been paid their salaries on departure.

Zou said he and a neighbor, Zhang Yongjun, 36, were the only ones among Bolin's 1,000 residents who have gone away to work. The fields here have always been plentiful, Zou noted, yielding bountiful crops of rice, corn and wheat. Water has always gushed from a nearby spring, flowing limpid and reliable into the fields year after year.

But pressure on the land is building as the population grows and a nearby town draws near, Zou said, and farmers have heard there may be plans to buy them out for an industrial park in the future. Even now, Zhang said, the families of Bolin have trouble making ends meet with just their farm revenues.

"If we could, we'd rather stay here, with our parents and our land," he explained. "But we have no choice. We have to go away and look for work."

More than 120 million of China's 1.3 billion people have made similar decisions in recent years, turning into a floating population that provides low-end labor from the factories of the Pearl River Delta to the kitchens of upscale restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing.

Zhang set out for Beijing in 2004, armed with skills as a welder learned at a local factory. Zou followed two years later, having worked at the same factory. Both worked seven days a week on the Taiyuan project as skilled laborers, who bring in about 10 percent more than beginners who have only their sweat to sell.

Zou and Zhang have both sent for their wives, who work as cleaners in construction project dormitories. Zou said he and his wife have found a room to rent in the suburbs but Zhang and his wife remain in the construction-site prefab. Like Zou's son, their daughter, Jiao, 13, has been turned over to her grandparents and attends school in a nearby village. Most years, the family is united only at Chinese New Year.

Without residence permits in the cities where they work, some migrant workers often have encountered difficulty in getting health care when they are injured or fall sick. Despite the government's promises to improve their lot, many still have had trouble collecting their wages when it is time to go home for Chinese New Year.

"The Chinese government is all talk and no action when it comes to delivering meaningful protection and social services for migrant construction workers," said a recent report from Human Rights Watch, the U.S-based advocacy group.

But as he lounged in his home, surrounded by lush green fields outside and the warmth of his family inside, Zou seemed content for the moment. The Olympic Games may have cost him his job, but it is only temporarily, he said, and it is for what he and his family agree is a worthy cause.

"It's good for the country," he explained.

Researcher Liu Songjie contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company