Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Birds Eye View

By Mark Mullen, NBC News Beijing Correspondent

Beijing's architectural feats -- most notably the Bird’s Nest, which has become the structural symbol of the Olympics -- have received a great deal of attention and praise.

But what is not seen in the television pictures, is the almost invisible army of 7,000 migrant workers who built the iconic structure, not to mention all the other spectacular venues. Their contribution is remarkable, although they are often paid little and receive even less recognition.

In our extensive travels around China, we were very impressed by the men who work with such dignity, and sacrifice so much to provide for their families, who they almost never see. So, more than a year ago, we decided to profile one of the Bird’s Nest’s migrant workers in the hope that at least one of the vast array of workers would remain nameless no more.
Of course, gaining access to a migrant worker at the Bird’s Nest proved no easy task. We began submitting multiple requests through every local, national and international agency that had any part of the Olympics. Finally, after months and countless faxed interview requests, officials produced for us an executive with the principal construction company building the Bird's Nest. That, of course, was the Chinese bureaucratic way. With good intentions, officials figured that a project as important as the Bird’s Nest should have an executive of high caliber speaking about it. I had no luck in trying to explain that it could be a terrific tribute to show the working guys building it.

Ultimately, it didn't matter because we got lucky. During that interview, we happened to meet a great guy on the building site we would come to spend a fair amount of time with over the course of a year: a 34-year-old migrant worker named Zhang Tao'An.

Like many of China's 150 million migrant workers, Zhang comes from a rural Chinese village where farm machines have replaced many men and the jobs which do exist don't pay as much as those in the cities where China is experiencing its explosive building boom.

So, Zhang traveled to Beijing in hopes of making up to $90 a week – joining a transient population of two million migrant workers who staff some 10,000 construction sites, building floor space that if laid out, would be three times the size of Manhattan.

The migrants live at the work site in aluminum dormitories, sometimes 12 per room. They have no heat or air conditioning and it's helpful to know how to sleep with noise around. The construction sites alongside the dorms usually operate 24/7.

Many of the workers work at least six days a week and have little to no health benefits or legal protection if a bad boss cheats them. Zhang said he had some bad experiences, but that he would keep doing the work.
Despite the difficulties, Zhang’s motivation is identical to that of parents everywhere: If his work can somehow make it easier for his son and daughter to attend college and live a better life, then it's worth it, he said. He hopes that the new opportunities available to his children’s generation, which were not available to him or his parents, will also help. Though he admitted, he misses his family very much.

Annual Pilgrimage
With many migrant workers sending home most of their salary, they can afford to see their families only once a year: during Chinese New Year. Over the holiday, the construction sites of this massive country are silenced, and in a reverse migration, more than 100 million workers head home.

Last February, during this year’s holiday, Zhang invited us to go home with him. He was excited. With the little money he had scrimped and saved, he went into a local market to buy presents for his family and friends. It is sign of generosity and prosperity to have ample gifts for the folks back home. So, he loaded his sack for the trip.
The next morning, we met him at the bus station, which was filled with workers.
Zhang was wearing his best clothes, including a suit jacket that was ill-fitting and slightly stained. He wanted to look his best for his family.

We boarded the bus with him for the four-hour journey home, but we ran into one of China's worst winter storms on record. Snow and ice covered the highway with numerous accidents stopping traffic for hours. On board, Zhang swapped stories with other workers speaking of good jobs, bad bosses and the reunions with family they were anxiously anticipating.
Eight hours after starting, the bus finally arrived at the depot and we took a quick cab ride to his small village. Jumping out of the cab with a smile on his face, his best clothes and his sack of presents, he set off for the final steps home, eager after so many months to see his family. Our camera was in tow ready to see the warm embrace.

But shortly after arriving, he discovered that it was so late, his entire family had fallen asleep. There would be no reunion tonight. It was a major disappointment, but he just turned to us and smiled. He was just glad to be home.

And he made the most of it. The next morning he had the chance to give the kids their presents and most important – himself. His three children happily played soccer in the courtyard of their traditional Chinese house.

He had a good laugh at our camera crew and me. The temperature outside was about 20 degrees Fahrenheit and like many Chinese who live in the countryside, every door and window in their home was wide open for fresh air. They merrily went about their business with warm weather clothes and pink cheeks. We toughed it out for about three hours of filming before running into our van, cranking on the heat and emerging once again to see the family all smiling at us.

For Zhang the holiday represented a joyous three weeks out of the year when he could enjoy spending time with his family, and in many ways get to know his wife again.
All year, she raises the kids, tends farm fields and looks after his mother – alone. She, like tens of millions of migrant workers' wives, works as hard as her husband. The home villages of migrant workers are easy to spot: they are filled with women, children and seniors. The working age men are in the city; except for during the holiday.

Zhang had an intimate but happy Chinese New Year dinner of dumplings – knowing that soon, the work cycle would continue. We thanked Zhang and his family for graciously inviting us into their home to share the holiday and said goodbye.

Another Job
We did not see Zhang again until two weeks ago at a construction site several hours from Beijing where his current job is to install insulation. With Beijing shutting down construction for the Olympics, many migrants were forced out of town.

Zhang knew we might want to interview him a final time before the Olympics, so he wore a nice red polo shirt and khaki pants, looking more like the property owner than one of the workers. It was only moments after the interview that he showed us the reality of his new job.
He gave us a tour of his bedroom, which was located in the concrete shell of the apartment building where he was working. For a mattress, he slept on the same sheets of green insulation that he installs. But in trademark fashion, he showed us this not to complain, but to say "It's better than most other sites where I've worked. It's nice and cool in here."

So the next time you hear about the legendary, hard working Chinese labor force, remember it has a name. It's Zhang Tao'An.
Zhang’s biggest motivation remains bettering the prospects of his children, though he did confide one secret wish to us. He said one day he would like to attend an event in the Bird’s Nest though he quickly added that he wasn’t counting on it.

The sad reality is that many of China's migrant workers know they may never be able to afford or gain access to the very event venues, office buildings and condominiums they construct.

This article can be found here.


  1. I think the p-light is same for the migrant workers only regions change. Everyday we here about Indian workers suffering in other countries the same fate and their families are living here in the anticipation of a better and bright future which sometoimes never comes. It is very sad but true and it negates all the glory we feel for this IT revolution or India shining.We shall be shining really the day we are able to provide each and every citizen of our country --the basic needs-roti,kapda aur makaan and medical and education.

  2. thats really a sad state! but kudos for them

  3. Renu: u r right. But then, if they didnt have this, then they starve to death along with their families.
    Though we feel sad for them & criticise the conditions in which they work, they actually thanks their stars that have atleast that.

    Winnie: When we see their problems, our troubles are nothing.

  4. Thousands in india too have similar or worse stories to share.
    This was an interesting read.

  5. that is so sad.
    even here, i am sure we all come across the workers working in the constructions in the scorching afternoon heat. we fret abt the heat even in our AC houses and cars. sad!

  6. Ps: The situation of these migrant workers is the same all over the world. Different faces, same story.

    Ish: Seriously, its terrible. I come across them twice a day when I walk to & back from work. The 10 mins I take to reach my office in this scorching heat is terrible, then can u just imagine these guys who are in the sun for hours at a stretch.

  7. Nice Blog. Yes some serious thought should be given to the same.

    Oh by the way I read your comment on Amit ji's blog enquiring about Bindra's blog.

    Here is the link in case you have not found it yet.

  8. thought provoking. like the workers of long ago who built the taj mahal. thanks for the article. now there indeed is a face to go with it all!

  9. dj sandy: Hey, so, so nice of u:-D...thank U.

    lan: yes, thought-provoking...also made me realise ONCE AGAIN how lucky we are.
    u knw...the very same thoughts abt the Taj Mahal occurred to me too.

  10. thanks for posting this!! It was very informative. As renu says it is the same for migrant workers everywhere. I've seen those who leave one country to go to another and they way they have to suffer just to earn a little to send home. sometimes those 'at home' don't realize the extreme sacrifices of the ones who traveled abroad to work- the long hours, the strenuous labor, the lack of family and friends, etc etc

  11. i read this article else where and did not feel all that much for it. I guess it is the same everywhere. It si a job and it need to be done and somebody needs to do it. The plight of construction workers is not very different in India. Recently we had a kind of flood near my complex where one naala had flooded and it caused a really high flow of water towards the lake near our complex. The small shack houses next to the complex where construction workers stay was atleast 4 feet deep in water. It was pathetic!

  12. Bins: U knw, more than the plight of these workers, I meant to highlight the fact that most of these workers were happy with their lot & realise the fact that if they didnt have this, their family wd practically be on the streets.
    It is us onlookers who feel terrible for their condition but they r more realistic in their vision & attitude to life.

  13. anjuli: Oh yes so very true...the workers slog it out & their family live so well in the home country....personally so many people lik this.
    Sorry I didnt realise I hadnt replied.


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