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Migrant Workers Toil in the Shadow of China's Olympic Glitz

China, August 10, 2008

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Kristi Heim

Seattle Times
August, 2008

Click Here to see accompanying photos.

BEIJING — In the shadow of China's new National Stadium, Meng Fang works as a housekeeper at an apartment building that hosts visitors here during the Olympics.

She earns about $120 per month, twice as much as she makes farming in the countryside, where meager harvests some years have left her family without enough food.

"My parents have a lot of hardships," she said. "I'm especially happy to get this job."

Her family is among the millions of migrant workers in China, on whose backs and shoulders cities like Beijing keep functioning and growing. They clean rooms, repair cars, cook food and do just about any job to survive.

Meng's family farms a small plot of spinach and green vegetables in a village about an hour south of the city center.

Migrant workers helped build the towering Bird's Nest stadium and many other Olympic venues, but most of them aren't here during the Games. Many of the workers were sent home in a campaign to clean up the city before the big event.

Yet all the money pumped into preparing for the Olympics has created some economic benefits for people like Meng, whose parents want a better life for her and her sister but can't afford to send them to school.

Last month, Meng, 18, graduated from a vocational-training program that helped her get a cleaning job as part of a paid apprenticeship servicing housing for Olympics support staff.

Mercy Corps, a Northwest nonprofit, sponsors the program as part of its Dandelion School, the only middle school in Beijing dedicated specifically to children of migrant workers.

The school was founded three years ago in a renovated factory by Zhang Hong, a former university professor who wanted to help migrant children escape the cycle of poverty.

Heading to the cities

The mass movement of people from rural areas to urban centers in China is one of the largest human migrations in history. China is encouraging urban migration as a way to increase the standard of living for its predominantly rural population. As they move into cities, they're able to find better-paying jobs.

A thousand new migrants — of all socio-economic levels — arrive every day in Beijing. At the bottom rung are manual laborers who live on the margin of society, often mistreated by employers or local officials and without access to health care or education.

Dandelion serves the children of these families. It helps them by offsetting education costs with donations, and it gets support from the Beijing government for its efforts to integrate migrants into the local community. The school's vocational training helps Beijing meet soaring demand for skilled labor. The city's Department of Labor is hoping to replicate Dandelion's model in other schools.

Dandelion is also trying to match its curriculum with the best public schools and prepare its top students to get into college. Legally, migrant children aren't allowed to go to school because their registration is tied to their home village. Public schools in Beijing make some exceptions with a few spaces for kids who are not from the city, but the schools are already overcrowded. If migrant children go to school at all, it's usually at a private school, with more expensive tuition and questionable quality, said Zhang Weiguang, an administrator at the Dandelion School.

Mercy Corps started a "study-to-work" program at the Dandelion School last fall with seed capital from its own Phoenix Fund, a venture-capital fund set aside for small and risky but potentially high-reward projects. More than 80 young people were in the program by June. It teaches them English, along with basic business and computer skills.

Classrooms are full of student drawings and paintings, and the bright murals outside are mosaics pieced together by students and teachers. Students eagerly practice their English on foreign teachers and volunteers who visit regularly.

Tuition is about $115 a year, less than what a private school would cost, and the school doesn't seek to make a profit, said Zhang. "The focus is all about helping the students," he said.

Kou Huaji, 17, has been studying at Dandelion for three years and takes part in the study-to-work program. He wants to open a pizza parlor in his native Henan province. His father struggled to make a living working various jobs in Henan before he came to Beijing to drive a delivery truck.

Dong Xiaolin, 14, and Dong Xiaomin, 16, are sisters from Anhui province. They have dreams that would have been unimaginable to their parents, who make and sell plaster for building construction.

"I want to be a detective because I think it's very interesting and it will be a big challenge," Dong Xiaolin said. "It's a job I can use English. English is very important for me now."

Dong Xiaomin, who studied at Dandelion and now attends high school in central Beijing, said she wants to be a DJ in her spare time and work for a company that lets her travel around the world.

Student Lu Aling, 16, said she likes Dandelion better than other schools she has attended because the computers aren't broken and the teachers care more about what students learn. The students hail from every province of China.

Meng's family lives just five minutes from the Dandelion School gate. For her new job, she stays at a dormitory in the city but returns home on weekends. The family of four rents two rooms. Built with brick and logs and sometimes leaky during rains, each room is about 8 by 12 feet.

Her parents work 20 hours a day, growing, harvesting and selling vegetables for Beijing's markets. They sleep only about four hours a day, usually during the midday heat.

As she walked recently along the narrow dirt path between her family's vegetable plots, Meng said she often misses her hometown in a rural part of Shandong province.

"It's very cool and comfortable there, with a lot of water and trees," she said. "It's not hot like Beijing."

But Beijing offers a better market for produce. "There aren't many people who farm here, but a lot of people who buy vegetables," she said. "In my home, there are too many farmers and not many consumers."

A different world

The neighborhood where Meng and several other Dandelion graduates work as housekeepers seems a universe away from the migrants' area and the Dandelion School. A Ferrari showroom sits on the ground floor of a new shopping mall that also boasts Cartier and Versace boutiques.

Meng sat outside on a bench nearby and felt the icy blast from the mall's air conditioner reach far beyond the door. The white towers of the apartments she cleans rose behind her.

"It's really fun," she said of the neighborhood. "The buildings are so tall. At home [in Shandong province] they are only two stories."

But "at home the air is good," she sighed. "It's bright and clear."

The Bird's Nest is visible in the distance, but Meng said she won't be watching the Olympics. Tickets were out of the question, and she's too busy to watch television.

Meng said she is giving more than two-thirds of her income to her parents, spending some for herself on clothes and food, and putting a little aside for savings. While she misses her old hometown in Shandong, she's not planning to return soon.

She wants to open a hair-cutting business in the future, "maybe in Beijing or maybe even Shanghai," she said.