REPORTER: Chris Hammer
Shanghai - the glittering epicentre of China's boom economy. I look out across the Huangpu River at the skyscrapers of Pudong - a landscape that didn't even exist when I last stood here, 13 years ago. Now, much of this new wealth, this new prosperity has been built on the back of one thing – cheap labour. And the cheapest labour comes from inland China, from so-called migrant workers, who flock to the coast to places like Shanghai looking for work. So I've come here to find out what their lives are like and whether they're getting their share of China's new prosperity. A half-hour drive away I find Xu Chuanruo, a 52-year-old street sweeper.
XU CHUANRUO, (Translation): I'm contacted to clean this part of the street.
Mr Xu came to Shanghai five years ago, leaving behind his wife and two kids in Hubei province, 1,000km away.
XU CHUANRUO, (Translation): We were too poor to keep my son in school. My son did very well in school. His teacher told me in a parents' meeting that my son was in the top five in his class. He was concerned we couldn't support him through college. So I worked very hard breaking and mixing stones for construction sites. I made about 20 yuan a day. It's backbreaking. Then my relative in Shanghai got me here to clean the streets. It's a lighter job and better paid. It's a great joy to work hard for my child.
In Shanghai Mr Xu can make up to 1,200 yuan per month, about $200. In China that's good money. But it requires a 12-hour day, seven days a week.
XU CHUANRUO, (Translation): I live here. Room 3. You can come in. There are eight of us live together.
Mr Xu's spartan lifestyle means he can send more than $100 per month back to his family. He spends what little spare time he has practicing the disappearing art of calligraphy.
XU CHUANRUO, (Translation): I like calligraphy. I practise every day. I'll write, even if I can't sell it. It's not for money. As for my son, whether he can get into college will depend on his efforts. I don't want him to work in the fields. My nephew once said to me if my son can't go to college, he can learn to be an electrician. It all depends on his own efforts.
This Chinese New Year ushers in the Year of the Golden Pig, and in this small workshop, I find a team of migrant workers. They've found employment making decorations for the celebrations. The lowest of the low are Zhang Yongqiang and his aunt Zhang Suqing. They're not part of the team but have paid a few dollars for the privilege of scavenging styrofoam scraps. When they've got as much as they can possibly carry, it's off on the half-hour ride to sell their bounty. Communist China has no welfare net for its 100 million migrant workers, they either work or go hungry. But there'll be no hunger for the Zhangs today - it's been a profitable morning.
ZHANG, (Translation): There are four bags. That'll make 200 yuan.
200 yuan - that's about $16 each. Over lunch at a roadside restaurant, the garbage collectors tell me even a lowly job in Shanghai is better than the poverty of their village.
ZHANG SUQING, (Translation): I can't make money at home. Our child has to go to school. We had no money. There isn't enough land for us to make a living.
Suqing explains that an $8 permit allows her to work in Shanghai for a year but doesn't entitle her son to go to school here, and there's no way she could afford one of private schools that cater for out-of-towners.
ZHANG SUQING, (Translation): He's in school at home and can't come here.
TRANSLATOR: Can't he go to school in Shanghai?
ZHANG SUQING, (Translation): It's too expensive to go to school here.
Back at her Shanghai hovel, Suqing recounts a difficult life - her mother dying when she was 5 months old, going hungry, and a forced marriage.
ZHANG SUQING, (Translation): My father didn't care if I liked the match or not. He agreed to it and didn't want to lose face. He was a local official. He was a cadre. We've had four children - three girls and a boy. We had to pay fines for the extra children we had. We were only allowed to have one child. So we were even more desperate for money.
Yet being a migrant worker doesn't necessarily equal poverty. In a small pedestrian street, I find the Maidens of Szechuan restaurant. Owner and manager Yang Mei has been in Shanghai for 12 years. She's owned four restaurants in that time, moving on and up as the buildings housing them, have been redeveloped in Shanghai's relentless building boom. This latest restaurant has a staff of 30.
YANG MEI, (Translation): Most of the kitchen hands are from my home town. Waiters are from many provinces, such as Jiangsu, Hubei, Henan and so on. Some are from Sichuan.
REPORTER: And do you just hire staff from the provinces, or do you hire people from here in Shanghai?
YANG MEI, (Translation): They don't work in my restaurant. I've never had an employee who is local. Shanghai people are kind of different. For example, they don't like hard work. People like us from provinces will do it.
REPORTER: So do you think the migrant workers are discriminated against?
YANG MEI, (Translation): That's certainly true. But things are much better now. Migrants used to find it hard to stay in Shanghai. They had to show their ID cards and residence permit. But the locals had no such problems.
Many waitresses here are young and a long way from home. 19-year-old Zou Heyan arrived from Szechuan - a 4-day train trip - only about a week ago
ZOU HEYAN, (Translation): I'm not used to the life here yet. I feel weak like jelly after a day's work. I suffer from diarrhoea as I'm not used to the climate. It's better that I can make my own money and save some for my parents. My family is very poor. I have two sisters. At home we didn't have enough to eat. I've experienced hardship, so I can bear a lot.
But in Yang Mei the young waitresses have a boss willing to look out for their interests as well as her own.
YANG MEI, (Translation): We provide food and accommodation. It's not easy for migrant workers to rent a place. After paying the rental, they don't have much left. So we rent places for our workers. They live together, just like a big family.
REPORTER: So do the girls have a name for you?
YANG MEI, (Translation): I tell them to call me 'big sister'.
I return to the restaurant as it's closing that night, as Zou Heyan and her colleagues leave for the evening. They take me to their apartment, a 20-minute walk away. Seven girls sharing a room barely large enough to squeeze in their bunk beds.
ZOU HEYAN, (Translation): When I first came, they looked after me. I've learnt a lot from them, things that I don't know. It was my first time to work away from home. They're all experienced and know a lot. So things are fine for me.
By Australian standards, it's poverty but the impression I'm left with is not so much one of hardship, but rather a sense of adventure and comradeship - leaving home to experience the world.
GIRLS, (Translation): Bye-bye. Hope to see you again.
Next morning, I meet up again with the Zhangs. They've made enough money to get home to see their families for New Year - 10 hours away by train. They're happy to see me because I've offered them a lift to the railway station.
ZHANGS, (Translation): It's the Chinese New Year. That's right. The whole family will come together. We should go home more often.
But for the Zhangs, the city beats their village any day.
ZHANGS, (Translation): It's a job with a lot of freedom. No-one bosses you. It's hard if we make no money but we're happy now.
At the station, the Zhangs and their friends soon disappear amongst the thousands of other migrant workers heading home for New Year. Their lives are tough, but they seem to be getting enough of China's boom to be happy – especially as they believe their children will enjoy a more prosperous future.


Fixer / Translator



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