Feature: New China copes with May Day

By CHRISTIAN M. WADE, UPI Correspondent  |  May 1, 2002 at 10:22 AM
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SHANGHAI, May 1 (UPI) -- Unlike millions of other Chinese, who will spend this weeklong Labor Day holiday exploring exotic locations throughout the country, Wu Qi has far more pressing concerns. He's too busy looking for employment in a nation that's becoming a land of lost jobs.

About six months ago, in a story that is all too familiar in modern-day China, the 45-year-old was laid off from the state-owned factory where he had worked for more than 25 years.

"There's nothing for me to celebrate," Qi said of the International Worker's Day, or May Day observance. "It used to be an important day for the farmers and workers, now it's just a holiday for newly rich people."

More than 50 million people are expected to tour the country by bus and train during the weeklong holiday, which was extended last year as part of a government-backed initiative designed to boost domestic spending by tempting consumers to hit the road with their disposable income.

China's burgeoning travel industry will be a major beneficiary of the Labor Day holiday -- bus and train tickets are nearly sold out for the week, and hotels and restaurants are expecting huge sales.

But for millions of unemployed workers across China, who are already bracing for what will likely be their hardest year in several decades, the public holiday fanfare only adds insult to injury.

"The only people who can afford to travel for the holiday are government officials who are making money off the backs of workers in this country," Qi said. "We are suffering, while they celebrate."

As China moves to restructure its state-owned industries, closing down thousands of inefficient factories, millions of workers are joining the ranks of the unemployed. Others are falling through the cracks of China's welfare system -- without severance pay, pensions or medical coverage.

Urban unemployment is expected to rise to its highest levels in decades in the next four years, as about 20 million more people are laid off, a top Chinese official told state media Sunday.

"An excessive labor supply coupled with pressures caused by obsolete job skills has resulted in a grim employment situation," Deputy Labor Minister Wang Dongjin said in a state media report.

The dire employment situation is driving workers into the streets. Over the past several months, China has witnessed some of the most profound labor unrest since the founding of the People's Republic more than 50 years ago. Few, even government officials, expect things to improve.

Last month, former workers in the southern provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong blocked roads and clashed with security guards over back pay and pension funds. In March, violent labor unrest engrossed two cities in China's northern provinces, as tens of thousands of laid-off oil workers in Daqing and Liaoyang fought with police over poor pension plans and a lack of medical coverage.

While China's leadership has acknowledged the impending labor crisis in recent weeks, pledging to find new employment for laid-off workers in the nation's growing private sector, it has blocked many attempts by workers to organize trade unions, according to human rights and labor groups.

In a report released Tuesday, Amnesty International alleges that workers seeking to organize independent labor unions or protests face imprisonment, torture and even execution.

"Protests by angry workers over layoffs, wage arrears, poor working conditions, and corruption have been met with repression and force," the London-based human rights group said. "Clashes between workers and armed police have resulted in casualties and arrests."

The report said conditions in China's workplaces continue to violate international standards of safety, and workers who speak out or report injuries are disciplined, dismissed and sometimes threatened and physically abused by their state employers and government authorities.

China's foreign ministry quickly denounced the report as "irresponsible" saying the findings did not "reflect the truth" about the nation's workforce and that conditions were actually improving.

On Monday, China's state council released a relatively upbeat report on the status of employment levels, saying many of the workers laid off in the past several years have found new jobs.

The labor report put the number of registered urban unemployed at 6.8 million at the end of last year, with about 150 million "surplus rural laborers" -- an official term for unemployed farmers.

"The government is fully aware that the employment problem in rural and urban areas will remain severe and structural unemployment will become more serious," the report said.

Unemployed workers in large cities such as Shanghai have a better chance of finding another job than do workers in China's poorer provinces that are solely dependent on state-owned factories.

But even here, in the nation's bustling financial capital, there are clear indications of the changing face of the workforce in China's major cities. In the past two years, Shanghai's service sector has outpaced its industrial sector, leaving much less work for under-skilled, unemployed laborers.

Along the crowded pedestrian walkways in China's financial capital, there are but a few reminders of the city's earlier period as an industrial center. Many of the state factories have been torn down and replaced with public parks and ponds, retail space or new high-rise apartment complexes.

Even the birthplace of China's Communist Party, where the late leader Mao Zedong held secret meetings to plot the overthrow of the nationalist government in the late-1930s, has all but been absorbed by shopping malls and expensive boutiques along the city's fashionable Huaihai road.

Two years ago, the site was bought by a conglomerate of foreign developers and converted into a gleaming multilevel shopping plaza with clothing stores and a Starbuck's café. Of course, the city government required them to restore and preserve the aging building as part of the agreement.

"We don't get as many visitors as we used to," said a middle-aged woman selling guided tours of the site, which is listed as a national historical treasure. "It's mostly old people these days."

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