The recent conference on migration at Columbia University, organized by the Comittee on Global Thought was a little heavy on the academic side. Of the many comments, discussions and badly designed powerpoints, two lessons stuck out for me. First, as Demetrios Papademetriou, President of the Migration Policy Institute pointed out, immigration policy in the United States favors family reunion over immigration for qualified workers. I never heard a policy maker express so directly what most of my friends have experienced. H1B applications have become a nerve wrecking lottery, where in only a window of 3 or 4 days, all visas for qualified persons are handed out. A green card through marriage is about a third of the cost of the now popular EB1 -the “genius green card”. The emphasis on family reunion invites critique regarding the enormous costs for integration.
The other lesson learned was that not enough researchers are looking at the issue of ‘rescaling’ namely what we are interested: Breaking immigration policies down to the local level. There is a great variety of examples, where cities are taking the issue into their own hands. Monica Varsanyi, Professor at John Jay College pointed out the good and the ugly of this “Immigration policing through the backdoor” Her working paper can be found here.
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The monumental urban revitalization of China’s cities currently underway is being performed on the shoulders of 29 million migrant construction workers. Most of them are recruited in their villages by construction companies for short-term jobs, with very little training or regard for construction standards or health and safety requirements.
An estimated number of 1.5 million so-called floating people are working on construction sites in Beijing comprising10% of the city’s total population. High costs of living and the strict hukou system, which divides China’s population into rural and urban residents leaves them with no choice but to remain floating. The hukou household registration system, introduced in 1958 to keep peasants on the land, regulates access to government services such as housing, education and health care. Chinese can access such services only in the place in which they are registered. About 950 million Chinese, 75% of the total population possesses a rural hukou.
Migrant workers travel back to their villages between jobs or for the harvest and send 90% of their salary to their families who rely on this income to survive. Migrants earn lower wages than urban residents, an average 540 yuan ($80) a month in 2004, compared to 1,350 yuan for registered urban residents. Remittances from urban to rural China are estimated to exceed $80 billion a year.
Employers provide housing at minimal cost and minimal standard on the work sites. A room of 250 square feet is typically shared by 10 people. Overcrowding is a common phenomenon and lack of electricity, potable water or heat during the winter months are often reported as the general condition in company provided housing.
Li Chuan Xin from Hunan province came for the summer of 2007 to work for a cleaning company on the site of the Olympic Stadium. A company recruiter came to his village to enlist several hundred men from the region. His salary of 50-60 RMB ($6-8) per day would only be paid out to him at the end of his stay before returning home for the harvest. Until then, he only got a small allowance, which he used to pay for food and a bunk bed in the site’s housing barracks.
For Li Chan Xin, this was his first visit to the capital, but many of his colleagues were returning for the third or fourth time to work on construction sites in the city. Spring festival at the end of April, or the harvest season in the fall are always reasons to go back to the villages but like most other migrant workers, Li Chuan Xin sees no chance to move to the city permanently and relocate his family.
Most migrants do not get health insurance from their urban employers and cannot easily access public health facilities. Similarly, the lack of access to schools and housing prevents migrants from relocating their families. They therefore remain transient, often for decades of their lives.
The Chinese government has been debating whether to loosen the hukou system since the mid-1990s. The most recent review by the Ministry of Public Security in 2005 concluded that local governments would have to extend to migrants the right to housing, education and health care, at significant cost to local governments. So far, local authorities have not been able to address this challenge. Providing housing and other services is still largely left to the employer with very little government oversight. According to Human Rights Watch, the inability to present an urban hukou, still denies migrant workers basic rights within their urban environment.