Tale of a worker away from home

2008-01-21 19:37:24  China Daily      

It was 21 years ago that Zhang Xiongwei arrived at Shanghai's Shiliupu Wharf with a few blankets and some bowls in a small sack. He has been working there ever since and speaks in the Shanghai dialect fluently. But he is still a migrant worker, registered as a rural resident, with his entire family living in his village. And he still shares a dormitory with three other migrant workers.

"Manual workers from other provinces still live on the periphery, and I'm going to raise this problem at the upcoming Shanghai people's congress (SPC)," says Zhang, 39, one of the three migrant workers' delegates to the congress.

As a deputy to the municipal people's congress, he is planning to propose that migrant workers' children be allowed in public schools and vocational training centers. "It's important to get better education to enter the mainstream," says the father of a 12-year-old girl.

Zhang went on a walk on East China Normal University campus with his daughter on her last visit to Shanghai, hoping to generate her interest in higher education. "I want my daughter to have her schooling in Shanghai. But for that I have to pay extra, about 800 yuan for a semester," he says.

He was chosen a model worker from 2004 to 2006. As one of the few migrant worker Party members, he was elected as a deputy to the congress last December, the first time Shanghai and some other municipalities and provinces included representatives from the group into their most important annual political event. The number of migrant workers in Shanghai alone is 5 million.

The SPC standing committee has adjusted the proportion of deputies, selecting more workers, farmers and women and reducing the percentage of government officials. Among the 860 deputies this year, 532 are non-government officials from all walks of life, including retired people, the physically challenged, university students and migrant workers.

The number of government official deputies who will take part in this session is 328, 49 less than that the last time, according to SPC standing committee figures.

Zhang was hired as a welder in 1987 by Shanghai Installation Engineering Co, a State-owned enterprise involved in a lot of the city's infrastructure and other major construction projects such Pudong Airport and the maglev (magnetic levitated) railway.

Shanghai Installation's human resources manager Hu Botao says the city began recruiting large numbers of workers from other provinces in the mid-1980s when the local economy was beginning to take off. Zhang was one of the first the company hired.

"We always went out in groups, and there were always people on a bus or on the street who looked at us with disdain," says Zhang, dressed in a dark blue suit that costs 800 yuan (110 U.S. dollars), about one-fourth of his monthly income. He has kept some of his old clothes he used to wear when he was first came to in Shanghai. "They do look stupid, but then."

"A lot has changed since I first came here. Now there are metro trains and highways, and Shanghai people are friendlier to migrant workers."